Lessons for Market Research from Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Tools & Techniques, Shopper, Retail, Online Qualitative Research


Walt Dickie

The torrent of shopping data from Black Friday and Cyber Monday is coming in. Although their names suggest a first person shooter game involving Robocop in some futuristic battle, these two days are the now-traditional kickoff to the U.S. Christmas shopping orgy, and a clarion call to the armies of the commentariat and blogosphere.

And, once again, in what appears to be as much a part of the new American Christmas tradition as the shopping experience itself, the big headlines are all about the massive growth of online shopping.

If you’ve somehow missed all the frenzied scribbling, you can turn to IBM which published the key data that almost everyone seems to have relied on in the IBM 2012 Holiday Benchmark Reports. There, in just a few pages of data, you’ll find both Friday and Monday’s online sales data broken down by retail category and compared to last year’s results.

The top line news story is, of course, the huge increase in online shopping: up 17.4% compared to last year’s Thanksgiving Day, up 20.7% compared to Black Friday 2011, and a whopping 30.3% up on Monday compared to a year ago.

Close behind is the news about mobile: IBM estimates that 24% of retail site traffic came from mobile devices on Black Friday this year, up from 14.3% last year – a monster increase of 67.8%. On Cyber Monday – traditionally understood as the day people went back to work and shopped their brains out on their employers’ broadband connections – mobile users were responsible for 18.4% of retail site traffic, which was up from 10.8% a year ago – an incredible 71.4% increase.

The oddity of the week was the unexpected difference between Android and iOS (Apple) users that emerged after correcting for Android’s dominance in the smartphone race. On Black Friday iOS devices accounted for 77% of mobile shopping traffic while Android accounted for only 23%. This is an oddity because currently Android phones and tablets outnumber iOS phones and tablets by about 60/40. Work it all out and “iPhone (and iPad) users are about three times more engaged in shopping with their devices than Android users.”

Horace Dediu does an excellent job of unpacking the “Android engagement paradox,” which he attributes mostly to “later adopters” buying Android phones in numbers sufficient to have overcome Apple’s early lead in smartphones. But, in the end, he finds this answer unsatisfactory. I wonder if the Android/iOS “paradox” contains a message for marketing research about mobile sampling – should we be thinking about weighting our mobile samples or imposing Android/iOS quotas?

But the main message for MR comes from some much more basic observations about mobile usage.

What caught my attention in IBM’s data wasn’t the comparison between this year’s Black Cyber Days to last year’s, but the column comparing Black Friday 2011 – last year’s Big Gun – with Friday, November 16, 2012 – seven days before this year’s opening round, a “normal” pre-holiday Friday, which I will henceforth refer to as, “Normal Friday 2012.”

You may remember that the headlines for Black Friday 2011 were more or less the same as they were this year: online as a whole and mobile shopping in particular were way up. But “Normal Friday 2012” blew away Black Friday 2011 on several measures. For instance, sales increased 10.8% on retail sites compared to last year’s Black Friday, and, on average, a sale in 2012 involved 3 items more than a sale in 2011. The headline-making shopping news of 2011 now trails the new normal.

Of the variables that increased on Normal Friday compared to Black Friday, most involve mobile and, overall that mobile site traffic increased 4.6%. Although mobile sales increased, sessions that involved viewing only a single page increased overall on mobile, as well as abandoned shopping carts. Moreover, with the exception of mobile sales, all the variables involving closing a sale fell, as well as sessions in which a visitor placed an item in a cart.

Normal Friday 2011 obviously involved more looking and comparing even though buying did manage an increase.

All of the other data collected over the past couple of years reinforces the obvious conclusion that mobile devices – smartphones and tablets – have become even more important components of shopping. Checking prices and features, sales, finding online coupons, and, for that matter, seeing advertising, are now normal parts of the shopping experience. As I said, we knew that.

But what seems to be fairly stunning is that in a single year the headline-making news of Black Friday is now the everyday expectation of Normal Friday.

The moral is that the retailers get it; they’re struggling with it but they get it. They all know that they have four screens to think about – TV, computer, tablet, and phone. They all know about showrooming: “when a customer visits a brick and mortar retail location to touch and feel a product and then goes online…to purchase the product.” And, the smartest of them have stopped complaining about it and are working on leveraging it with apps that provide extra services in-store – new items, sales notices, bar code scans – then let you “flip” to their website to take advantage of online deals. The same app lets you find their deals when showrooming in a competitor’s store, too. They’re adapting to the new normal.

Can this please be the year that marketing researchers – clients and suppliers – stop wondering whether to add a “cell phone segment” to a sample spec and accept the fact that we need to expand our data collection toolbox, to fit the the time, connectivity, and screen size constraints of mobile while also expanding our thinking? We should be focusing on leveraging the incredible capabilities that mobile presents for collecting new kinds of data in new kinds of situations. We need to walk away from the “online revolution” of the early 2000s and realize that we’re in a new, increasingly mobile-dominated age.

By the way, the average session on a mobile device on Black Friday 2011 took 4:03, and Normal Friday 2012 it had shrunk to 3:46. That session probably took place while the shopper was doing at least two other things at the same time, and everything that was going on was almost certainly of interest to MR. But, we probably missed it.

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