Can Holiday Shopping Save Retail Sales?

I might just make it my New Year's resolution to refuse any involvement in holiday product release fiascoes. I admitted my participation in the TMX Elmo train wreck, but the behavior of shoppers -- and I don't just mean the ones killing each other over PlayStation 3 -- seems a bit more over the top crazy than in years past.

The wack jobs lining up at stores at midnight, stampedes at store openings and the hours of sitting in traffic to exercise the privilege of parting with one's cash tell a story about society as we know it. Search behavior has always told us a story, but this holiday season seems to be more intense as rush-to-shop information seekers have crowded the web.

Must shop drill
I can only come to one conclusion in the face of all this insanity. One would have to be a raving lunatic to keep shopping in stores. comScore reported that retail buying for the traditional Black Friday online shopping was up 22 percent over last year, and with the proliferation of broadband, spending at work is ahead 50 percent of overall spending.

Hitwise, another firm that tracks consumer behavior, reported that retail traffic was up nearly 12 percent in the days leading up to and including Black Friday. The Hitwise Retail 100 index indicated that Walmart.com and assorted other big box retailers were tops in retail traffic.

The Hitwise data points to shoppers doing research but are they really spending more or just looking for a place to go stand in line? Hitwise data indicates that Walmart.com received just over 18 percent of early holiday shopping traffic, but the sales numbers fell .1 percent over last year.

Shopping behavior and purchase data offers key insights into search advertising-- a lot of clickers and few buyers. This is bad news for a search advertising budget, since click costs can increase 20 percent or more during the holiday season.

The best advice anyone can get for optimizing a search initiative -- beyond the usual watch the calendar, cost and inventory matching equations -- is to spend more time watching and acting on actual converting or buying keywords.

Sourcing the insanity
Perhaps the retailers are the lunatics? People must be told to come and shop early-- and they have been. Cheap plasma? Show up at four in the morning. Want a $200 blender for 12 bucks? Only if you arrive wearing a clown suit and stand in the rain all night waiting for it.

I wonder how crazy it will get before the collective sanity of mankind kicks into gear. The people who brought you smashmyipod.com have launched Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii smashing sites as a social experiment. The game is simple: raise money for the new toys and smash them on the street in front of adoring fans.

After waiting for hours or days to buy a hot item, choosing to smash it on the sidewalk in front of the store speaks volumes about the lunacy that exists in the holiday shopping world. Millions watch the news relating to shopping violence and download the smash videos. Some creativity in reaching out to the populace would seem to be in order.

The least thought of and often most effective means of making a connection with a buyer is overlooked far too frequently.

Search engine advertising text like "Skip the traffic and find the right gift" actually works. I haven't tried "Avoid stray bullets, shop my site, free shipping," but I have a feeling it might work.

In the search world managing thousands of keyword sets makes it difficult (but not impossible) to optimize a holiday initiative without completely burning through your budget.

Waiting for a verdict
The jury is still out on whether paranoia-inducing sales techniques will work. The O.J. debacle and subsequent resolution proves there is hope for society. The blog police are keeping the webosphere in check, but the rest of the world is still on its own.

Top movers on the Hitwise Retail 100 list indicated that brick-and-mortar retailers jumped ahead of virtual stores. Overstock.com lost two positions in the top 10, and Best Buy knocked Amazon.com out of the number two position in a week-to-week comparison of traffic share.

The first wave of seasonal insanity is over. As the season progresses, consumers will shift behavior back to online retailers. The timeline for finding the right gift will shorten and shoppers will have to focus on the inherent need of gift giving, so sharpen your gift cards and shipping calculators.

Kevin Ryan is the chief executive officer of Kinetic Results. Read full bio.

 

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