This Connected Life: Black Friday Goes Online

For a while now, shopping around Thanksgiving has been a mix of in-store and online, that’s nothing new. But this year something happened that we haven’t seen before:

A National Retail Federation survey on Sunday found that more people shopped online than in stores during the Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend, a sign of how quickly and deeply American shopping habits have changed.

It was a brisk weekend as well:

Consumers spent an estimated $4.45 billion online Thursday and Friday, with Black Friday sales rising 14% from a year ago, according to Adobe Systems Inc., which tracks purchases across 4,500 U.S. sites.

And it wasn’t just any form of online shopping:

[Adobe] estimated that more than half of Black Friday shopping came from mobile devices. At Wal-Mart Stores Inc. about half of online orders since Thanksgiving have been placed on mobile devices, almost double the amount last year, according to the retail chain.

The shift to mobile devices started in a bug way last year and has gotten stronger:

According to data from International Business Machines Corp., mobile devices accounted for about 57% of all online shopping traffic, up 15% since the same period last year, and the first time mobile traffic has exceeded desktop traffic on Black Friday.

It’s not hard to see why. Retailers offer better deals for longer periods of time online, and there aren’t any crowds to deal with. Some items really need to be seen in person, such as TV sets and monitors, but the in-store experience isn’t always what it should be. Best Buy was open after 5:00 PM on Thanksgiving Day, but clerks were pretty clueless about the stock they had on hand and where to find particular items.  The whole scene was a mess, and it was easy to walk out of the store with the wrong purchase.

e-Commerce is a better experience than in-store shopping, even if you buy online and then go to the store for pickup. No pushy sales clerks, no lines, and limited chaos. All of this translates into people spending more money for a more satisfying experience; that’s why the holiday shopping binge is “projected to bring in between $70 billion – $95 billion in e-commerce sales.” For contrast, Google’s quarterly revenues are around $18 billion.

Hence, a great deal of the economic value of our connected technologies is collected by firms who do business online but aren’t seen as parts of the online infrastructure: Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Sears are brick-and-mortar stores, but the pure online plays also do spectacularly well. Amazon reported some amazing numbers from last year’s holiday season:

  • Nearly 60 percent of customers shopped using a mobile device this holiday. Mobile shopping accelerated as customers got later into the shopping season.
  • Cyber Monday continues to be’s peak mobile shopping day. Black Friday had the most rapid growth in mobile shopping.
  • Total holiday sales from the Amazon app for smartphones doubled in 2014 in the US.
  • On Cyber Monday, Amazon customers worldwide ordered more than 18 toys per second from a mobile device.
  • Amazon customers purchased enough Elsa dolls to reach the top of Cinderella’s castle 855 times.
  • If all of the Percy Jackson Heroes of Olympus books purchased by Amazon customers during the holidays were piled up, they would be more than twice as tall as Washington State’s Mount Olympus andMount Olympus in Greece—stacked on top of each other.
  • Amazon customers purchased enough Sophie the Giraffe teethers to equal the height of 788 real giraffes.
  • If every Amazon customer who purchased a copy of Pokémon Alpha Sapphire or Pokémon Omega Ruby this holiday season caught every species of monster in the game, they would have collected more Pokémon than the entire population of the US.
  • Amazon customers purchased enough Lifestraws to sustain more than 115,000 thirsty campers for a year.
  • If every shoe from each pair of pumps Amazon Fashion customers purchased this holiday season were stacked on top of each other they would equal 52 times the Empire State Building.
  • The number of pairs of cowboy boots Amazon Fashion customers purchased this holiday season is enough to provide a new pair of boots to the population of Cheyenne, Wyoming, home of one of the largest rodeos.
  • Amazon customers purchased enough wiper blades for every driver in Mobile, Alabama, the rainiest city in the US.
  • The total length of Duck Brand Disney Frozen duct tape purchased by Amazon customers this holiday season could stretch to the top of Disneyland’s Matterhorn more than 729 times.
  • Assuming the average customer moisturizes twice per day, Amazon sold enough O’Keefe’s Hand and Foot Cream to provide a lifetime supply to the entire Seattle Seahawks football team roster.
  • Amazon customers purchased enough laser pointer pet toys to give more than seven to every Lasik eye surgeon in the US.
  • Amazon customers purchased enough commercial butane torches to caramelize 31,000 crème brulees.

That’s a lot of crème brulee and cowboy boots.

This shopping frenzy is accompanied by a lot of returns since online purchases aren’t always what they seem, and returns are expensive to both buyers and sellers. But this is an area where technology makes a difference: we’re already seeing multiple images of products on shopping sites, many of them capable of rotating 360 degrees. The ultimate would be 3D images that could be rotated 360 degrees in any direction, integrated with videos of the installation and use of the purchase.

It shouldn’t take long for things like that to happen, because the retailers have incentives to improve their shopping experiences in order to make more sales without simply dropping prices to the point that the sales become pointless. And there’s little doubt that devices and networks will improve to make those hyper-shopping tools work better.

Shopping can be one of the most annoying activities, but connection technologies are transforming it for the better.