As RKG and others have pointed out, the holiday shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is six days shorter in 2013 compared to last year. With Black Friday and Cyber Monday now behind us, we can finally put some hard numbers to the question of how the shift in the calendar has impacted consumer behavior so far, and what we might expect to see over the next few weeks.
To start, our paid search data and that from other sources indicates that year-over-year online retail sales growth for both Black Friday and Cyber Monday was quite strong.
Black Friday retail sales were up 38% year-over-year on average, while Cyber Monday sales growth was 19%. Both of those are encouraging results, but the relative strength of Black Friday's growth may speak to a couple of key factors.
First, the late start to Black Friday weekend likely left shoppers more eager to start making purchases as soon as the post-Thanksgiving promotions kicked in. Retailers have also increasingly moved towards running one promotion from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, and even beyond, leaving less incentive to hold off on making purchases until Monday. All told though, Cyber Monday sales were still nearly double Black Friday sales and it is almost certain that it will be the biggest shopping day of the year -- in North America -- for the fourth year in a row.
Holiday Sales Have Shifted Earlier... and Later
While it is a relief to see Black Friday and Cyber Monday yet again deliver big Y/Y gains for retailers, we know from experience -- and data -- that those results are not great predictors of performance for the full holiday season. Six years ago, in my very first RKGBlog post no less, I noted that "consumers are increasingly taking advantage of the strong promotions online retailers have been offering early in the season."
That's an assertion we've echoed pretty much every year since, and the corollary to it is that there has been a lull in year-over-year growth and volume following Cyber Monday before both pick up again as shipping cutoffs approach -- and many retailers offer additional promotions.
In our Digital Marketing Report for Q4 2012 we showed how this ongoing shift in consumer behavior manifested itself last year at the weekly level. Sales growth hit a peak the week of Cyber Monday, but quickly fell to below early-November performance. Growth finally rebounded the week before Christmas and was particularly strong post-Christmas, although off a smaller volume base.
For an interesting perspective on this phenomenon, check out Matt Van Wagner's recent Search Engine Land article recounting Harry & David's experience in 2012. (Update 12/10/13: this article has since been taken down)
Where Retailers Stand Post-Cyber Monday
Strong Black Friday and Cyber Monday growth isn't surprising, it's expected and even necessary in order for retailers to make up for the shorter holiday season this year.
Looking at cumulative sales by calendar date starting in mid-November, we can see that early holiday sales growth in 2013 was very healthy at roughly 20% Y/Y until we hit November 23rd, which was Black Friday last year. At that point, the running 2013 sales total loses ground to the previous year and cumulative sales growth turns negative on November 26th -- Cyber Monday last year.
Fortunately, following Cyber Monday this year, total sales over mid-November through December 2nd are now running up 11% Y/Y on average. In other words, retailers are already out of the hole brought about by the shorter season, but total holiday sales growth still has a ways to go before it matches the levels we saw earlier in Q4.
In order for growth in total holiday sales to again hit the 20% level we saw before Thanksgiving, online retailers will need to see a little over 25% growth between now and Christmas. There will be some ups and downs date by date, but that sounds reasonable at this point.