ComScore: Online Sales Up, Concerns Linger

online shopping E-commerce sales grew 2% in January compared to a year ago, offering online retailers a glimmer of hope after the unprecedented 3.5% fall-off in business during the holiday season, according to a new comScore survey.

But other findings from the Web measurement firm's study were less reassuring, showing that concerns about a worsening economy and job security will continue to impinge on consumer spending. "It's clear that these economic conditions are affecting consumers in myriad ways," says comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni, during a quarterly Webinar Thursday on the state of online retailing. "Savvy marketers need to stay on top of how things are changing."

The comScore survey presented a picture of an anxious American consumer at the start of 2009. The specter of unemployment has supplanted high prices as the most worrisome economic issue, with 46% afraid of losing their jobs in January compared to only 14% in July.



Twice as many people think the economy will worsen in the next three months instead of improving, and more than three-quarters are cutting back on spending because of the recession. The 85% retrenching in the $50,000 to $100,000 income range is an all-time high for the middle-income category.

This group is especially important for e-commerce--accounting for 46% on online sales in January, compared to 34% for those making $100,000 or more, and 19% for those with incomes under $50,000.

Not surprisingly, retail categories including toys, luxury goods, event tickets and office supplies were all down at least 9% in January compared to a year ago. Looking for ways to save, consumers are instead flocking to coupon sites, where traffic in December was up 46%. Searches on the term "coupon" have more than tripled, and more than half (53%) of the online population is using coupons more often, according to comScore.

Fulgoni suggests that manufacturers and retailers should cater to the growing demand for coupons by making them more widely available online instead of only via Sunday newspaper fliers. The survey showed that 29% get coupons through online coupon services and 22% from a brand's site, compared to 42% from Sunday paper inserts (with overlap among different distribution channels).

"One has to wonder whether we're at a tipping point for distribution vehicles for coupons as newspaper readers decline and they shift attention to the Internet," says Fulgoni. In that vein, surfing the Internet was the activity that the highest proportion (52%) of respondents said they were spending more time doing to relieve stress from the economic downturn--just ahead of watching TV.

Again, Fulgoni says e-commerce around video games and other entertainment categories could potentially benefit from this "cocooning phenomenon." The connection is not so clear, however. While sales of video games, consoles and accessories increased 7% in January, sales of music, movies and video fell 22%.

Assessing the potential impact of the stimulus package on online retail, Fulgoni questions whether it would have long-lasting effects. He notes that the income tax rebates sent out under former President George W. Bush led to a brief spike in online buying before growth settled back into the single digits. E-commerce growth for 2008 ended up at 7%, well below the double-digit increases of recent years.

The comScore chairman, however, reiterated throughout the Web presentation and a Q&A session that online is gaining an increasing share of retail, but still has plenty of room for growth. "It represents somewhere around 8% to 9% of all disposable income spending in the U.S., so there's clearly a lot of upside for it," he says.

He points out that while e-commerce went up 2% in January, offline retail sales declined 6% to 14% in categories such as furniture, autos, consumer electronics and apparel and accessories, according to U.S. Dept. of Commerce figures.

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