Online Shoppers Check Out Holiday Retailer Performance

We know that American consumers shopped and bought online this holiday season in record numbers. But what did they think of the experience of gathering product information, evaluating alternatives and tapping that buy button? Personalization provider Baynote went straight to the consumers in a poll of over 1,000 online shoppers between Cyber Monday in late November and Christmas Eve to see how they said they were using and experiencing e-commerce, retailer sites, social networks, and tablets and mobile devices.

The top line grade was good for e-commerce, with 84% of consumers reporting a good or excellent response, up from 78% last year. Functionality seems the highest priority for shoppers, who rated a smooth experience at checkout, overall site navigation, product comments and reviews and on-site search as the most important contributors to a positive experience with a brand. Lagging in importance were  site product recommendation, social network advice, live chat support and the mobile experience.

The power of social networking in relation to actual shopping behavior and product decisions appears to be limited. According to this survey 80% of respondents claimed that social networks had no influence on their decisions. As a direct commerce vehicle, Facebook itself has scant effect, with only 9% saying they purchased something from a retailer’s fan page. Overall, across all of the platforms, Web, Facebook, mobile and tablets, consumers rated brands’ Facebook presence the least satisfying.

For all of the developments in site design, mobile and social network couponing, etc., good old email remains the best source for useful product promotions (95%), followed by search (63%), direct mail (62%), daily deals (36%) and then Facebook (27%).

Powerful as the Web experience may be in influencing and informing brick-and-mortar purchase decisions, that strength actually is variable according to category, Baynote finds. When it comes to electronics and computer purchases, 41.4% said online research had a “big influence,” compared to only 23.4% in household items, 22.3% for entertainment products, 20.5% for apparel and 15.9% for toys. Overall, however, the Web’s cross-channel power remains unassailable, as 64.8% said they researched at least half of their offline purchases first on the Web.

The emerging story of holiday shopping 2011 was the new importance of mobile media. Conventional wisdom held that shoppers were coming into stores with smartphones locked and loaded, product comparison apps ready to fire, and customers ready to order from competitors in a store aisle. The reality was a bit more measured. Baynote’s survey found that 77.6% of people did not use their mobile phone to do product research or comparisons, while 22.4% did.

To put that into perspective, however,  less than half of American consumers own smartphones, the advanced devices that are most likely to be used for m-commerce. If we slice the numbers that way, then the 22.4% of consumers who did use their phones for shopping constitute almost half of smartphone owners. Still, when anticipating future use, 69.8% of respondents did not expect they would be using their smartphone at all for shopping in the future. Curiously, however, 14.4% told Baynote they actually had made a purchase on their phone during the holiday.

Tablets are a different story. Among the 16.8% of consumers who said they owned a tablet, almost half (48.6%) said they had used the device to make a purchase this holiday. What many in the industry are dubbing “t-commerce” came on strong in the latter half of 2011, as many retailers started reporting unexpectedly strong sales coming from tablet apps and browsers. Apparently, shoppers like to tap, swipe and buy. Whatever reticence there may be about shopping and buying with phones disappears on the tablet. Baynote finds that less than a third of tablet owners said they would not be using this device for shopping, while the overwhelming majority expected to use their iPad, Kindle Fire and other tablets as a tool for product research and even purchase. 

While satisfaction with online shopping was high overall, the survey noted some persistent complaints. Among shoppers, 44.1% complained that search engines delivered too many site options, and 34.3% disliked that search links drove them to the generic home page rather than to the product page for which they were looking.

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