E-Sales Up? Apparently. Is This Good News? That's A Big Maybe

Amidst the avalanche of downright depressing retail economic news this holiday season, there are recurring hints that E-tailers—as a group—fared far better. But because we're starving for any sign of optimism, are we interpreting those signs unrealistically? The seemingly happy E-Commerce signs were all around, right after Christmas. On Saturday (Dec. 27), Forrester reported that "more than half of E-tailers we just surveyed still said they were up in sales through December 20." The day before, Amazon tried to make a splash by reporting that its "2008 holiday season finished as (Amazon's) best ever." But both statements lacked context. The Amazon statement in particular was ultra vague, even by Amazon standards. It didn't define what it meant by its "holiday season," a term that different retailers have used to refer to sales from between December 1 and December 24 and even from October 15 (pre-Halloween) all the way through January 15 or even January 30 (to incorporate returns and people using gift cards). Amazon also didn't define "best ever" at what. Presumably, it refers to revenue. But it could have literally meant that the company sold a larger number of items, given that one of the fears this season was that consumers might buy a larger number of much smaller items while spending less overall. It's a nice holiday illusion to mask the fact that a lot more gift boxes—which cost a total of about $50—have replaced the $100 worth of gifts under the tree last year. The Amazon statement didn't address that. Nor did it address—nor could it have addressed—what January will look like. That raises the frightening question of whether people were simply front-loading their purchases. In other words, if Amazon made an extra $12 in December but at a cost of making 16 fewer dollars in January, it's hardly a victory. Also, these e-tail numbers have to be examined in an overall retail context. Although it doesn't impact Amazon, most large e-tail operations have brick-and-mortar components. So if the weather and traffic and budget cuts moved lots of physical sales to online, it's critical to see if it's a net loss or not. The Flip Side Then there's the flip side, which can never be fully known. Let's say, for example, that a chain's in-store sales dropped $20 and its online operation grew $18. A quick conclusion is that growing online is a weak strategy, because the chain lost $2. Setting aside the fact that its online sales likely have a better profit margin than in-store sales, there's also the competitive issue. If the chain had not focused on its E-Commerce efforts, might its overall sales have dropped a lot more than $2? The "official" surveys of holiday shopping numbers are contradictory. On December 23, Comscore reported a slight decrease in E-Commerce spending: "For the holiday season through December 21, $24.71 billion has been spent online, down one percent versus the corresponding shopping days last year." But don't tell that to the folk at Chase Paymentech, which on the same day (Dec. 23) reported a sharp increase in those same E-Commerce holiday sales numbers. "To date, transaction count for the holiday shopping season is ahead of last year by 21 percent, while sales are ahead of last year by 8 percent. The average ticket, or value spent per transaction, remains down by 11 percent versus 2007." So much for getting consistent context from the experts. It's also at this time of year when a CEO's true commitment to merged channel—or even cross-channel—is tested. I was disheartened to see a recent Toys-R-Us E-mail campaign distributing a coupon labeled "in-store only." It's the retailer's right, of course. But during snowstorms, such restrictions seem an excellent way to discount a coupon's attractiveness. In some small way, we have to wonder if that Toys-R-Us campaign helped Amazon's numbers?