Digital first-timers fuel Black Friday ecommerce surge


Millions of Americans unable or unwilling to visit malls were set to splash out billions of dollars from their smartphones and laptops on Black Friday as those who have never shopped online before fuel a historic boom in ecommerce.

Amazon, Walmart and Target were on track to be among the biggest corporate winners from the surge in digital spending, consolidating their lead over struggling rivals as shoppers who are new to online purchasing turn to retailers with the strongest digital offerings.

Online sales were on course to increase 40 per cent from 2019 levels on Black Friday to more than $10bn, according to estimates from Adobe Analytics. It recorded $6bn worth of ecommerce orders on Thanksgiving — about half from smartphones.

Chess boards were proving particularly popular, thanks to the hit Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit, as was the PlayStation 5, which has been in short supply.

About 9 per cent of online sales so far this week have come from customers who are new to internet shopping, according to Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights, who said that such consumers “tended to skew older and hailed from rural parts of the country”.

Animated gif showing that record online spending is forecast for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

While retailers were preparing for lines to form outside stores on Friday, few were expecting a big rush of crowds, not least because health authorities have urged restraint. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified shopping in crowded areas as a “higher risk activity” that helps spread Covid-19.

The shift online is expected to be so great that retailers are concerned about whether delivery networks will cope. Companies including Walmart have sought to spread demand over a longer period than usual, offering promotions long before Black Friday.

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The ecommerce spending surge is the latest sign that, despite the reluctance to go shopping in person, a sizeable section of the population — those who have remained in work and been able to save money from staying at home — is in robust financial health.

However, retailers are nervous about the economic outlook as the pandemic drags on. “Consumers still face uncertainty with rising Covid cases and high unemployment,” said Sonia Syngal, chief executive of Gap, the clothing retailer, this week.

The conversion of yet more shoppers to ecommerce threatens to cause more lasting damage for clothing chains, department stores and other struggling bricks-and-mortar operators already ravaged by the crisis.

Bricks-and-mortar footfall in the run-up to the peak shopping season was sharply lower than usual levels, down 31 per cent year on year in the third week of November, according to RetailNext. Several big chains, including Best Buy and Walmart, were closed altogether on Thanksgiving.

Initial figures indicated that Amazon, together with those bricks-and-mortar based retailers with the strongest online offerings, were increasing their lead over weaker operators.

In the week leading up to Black Friday, digital sales at Amazon jumped 65 per cent from 2019, Edison Trends figures showed. At Walmart and Target, two of the strongest bricks-and-mortar operators, they rose 167 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively.

Ecommerce business at other companies has also risen sharply, but from a lower base and at a less dramatic pace. They rose 19 per cent at Nordstrom, 23 per cent at JCPenney and 54 per cent at Macy’s.

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