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Thanksgiving online shopping hits record $5.1B, up 21.5% on 2019, 47% of sales via mobile

Ingrid Lunden
·7-min read

Thanksgiving for many is about eating, seeing family, reflecting and relaxing for the day. But for an increasing number of us, it also seems to be about shopping. Collectively, consumers in the U.S. spent a record $5.1 billion buying goods online yesterday, according to analytics from Adobe.

The company's marketing technology division is following online sales in real-time at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the U.S., covering some 100 million SKUs. While the final sales figure fell well short of the $6 billion that Adobe originally predicted, it's still the highest amount ever spent during Thanksgiving, a day when brick-and-mortar stores (in cities where they have not been shut down due to the pandemic) are traditionally closed.

Adobe said that combined with online shopping activity in recent weeks, and its forecasts for the weeks ahead (including today, Black Friday) U.S. online retailers are still on target to clear $189 billion in this holiday season -- a period that others are also predicting will be strong. Black Friday and Cyber Monday in particular will remain the two biggest online sale days, with today's sales expected to be between $8.9 billion and $10.6 billion (or between 20% and 42% higher compared to last year).

Meanwhile, analytics from Shopify, which tracks activity across more than 1 million merchants using its e-commerce platform, indicate that the average cart price globally was $86.80, and in the U.S. specifically it was $90.40.

Adobe said one reason that sales fell short of its original estimates is because the holiday sales cycle now starts even earlier for many retailers: "Retailers of all sizes appear to have successfully moved shoppers to buy earlier in the season with early discounts and effective promotions," the company noted. Indeed, leading up to Thanksgiving, each day this week had sales of more than $3 billion.

"While yesterday was a record-breaking Thanksgiving Day with over $5 billion spent online, it didn’t come with the kind of aggressive growth rate we’ve seen with the start of the pandemic," elaborated Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights. "Heavy discounts and aggressive promotions starting in early November succeeded at getting consumers to open their wallets earlier. While COVID-19, the elections and uncertainty around stimulus packages impacted consumer shopping behaviors and made this an unprecedented year in e-commerce, many consumers are still holding off on remaining gift purchases until today and Cyber Monday in hopes of scoring the best deals."

To put Adobe's $5.1 billion figure into some context, the overall holiday sales season represents a 33.1% jump on 2019, and Thanksgiving itself is up 21.5%, when shoppers spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving.

The numbers are a hopefully encouraging sign that despite some of the economic declines of 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers will at least be able to make up for some of their losses in the next couple of months, traditionally the most important period for sales.

As we have been reporting over the last several months, overall, 2020 has been a high watermark year for e-commerce, with the bigger trend of more browsing and shopping online -- which has been growing for years -- getting a notable boost from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The push for more social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has driven many to stay away from crowded places like stores, and it has forced us to stay at home, where we have turned to the internet to get things done.

These trends are not only seeing those already familiar with online shopping spending more. It's also introducing a new category of shoppers to that platform.

Adobe said that so far this week, 9% of all sales have been "generated by net new customers as traditional brick-and-mortar shoppers turn online to complete transactions in light of shop closures and efforts to avoid virus transmission through in-person contact." Tellingly, in U.S. states where there are more CoVID-19 restrictions -- either related to numbers that can gather, or in the closure of some venues like shops -- online sales growth was 47% higher.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has traditionally been marked as the start of holiday shopping, but the growth of e-commerce has given more prominence to Thanksgiving Day, when physical stores are closed and many of us are milling about the house possibly with not much to do. This year seems to be following through on that trend.

"Families have many traditions during the holidays. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and fear of spreading the virus are, however, preventing Americans from enjoying so many of them. Shopping online is one festive habit that can be maintained online and sales figures are showcasing that gifting remains a much beloved tradition this year," said Schreiner.

(That's not to say that Black Friday won't be big: Adobe predicts that it will break $10.3 billion in sales online this year.)

Some drilling down into what is selling:

Adobe said that board games and other categories that "bring the focus on family" are seeing a strong surge, with sales up five times over last year. Chess is seeing a special surge of interest in the wake of the popular Netflix series, "The Queen's Gambit."

Similarly -- in keeping with how much we are all shopping for groceries online now -- grocery sales in the last week were up a whopping 596% compared to October, as people stocked up for the long weekend (whether or not, it seems, it was being spent with family).

Other top items include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Just Dance 2021, as well as vTech toys and Rainbow High dolls.

Amazon's announcement this week that it would be offering more options for delivery this season speaks to how e-commerce is growing beyond simple home delivery, and how this has become a key part of how retailers are differentiating their businesses from each other. Curbside pickup has grown by 116% over last year this week, and expedited shipping is up 49%. Adobe said that 56% of items purchased online were received via curbside pickup or expedited shipping.

As predicted, smartphones are playing an ever-stronger role, too. Adobe said $25.5 billion has been spent via smartphones in November to date -- up 48% over 2019. As the day went on, more people shifted to shopping on their handsets, with smartphones accounting for roughly half of all online sales (versus 38.6% just in the morning). Shopify was even more bullish on smartphones: It said that they accounted for a whopping 70% of all the sales on its platform on Thanksgiving globally.

In the U.S., Adobe said that big retailers continue to dominate how people shop, with the likes of Walmart, Target, Amazon and others pulling in more than $1 billion in revenue annually, collectively seeing their sales go up 147% since October. Part of the reason could be more sophisticated websites, with conversion rates 100% higher than those of smaller businesses. (That leaves a big opening for companies that can build tools to help smaller businesses compete better on this front.)

It should be noted, though, that the Shopify story paints a different picture. As a platform to enable any brand to build an e-commerce experience into their online profile, its focus on the "long tail" of online retailers, with some 1 million merchants using its platform to power the sales, run fulfillment and more. Shopify will be publishing more detailed results on Black Friday, but the message seems to be that the size of the business isn't everything: Having an efficient sales experience for what you are selling is.

Shopify said that peak U.S. sales per minute on its platform happened at about 9 p.m. EST, with $919,000 selling per minute at 4:35 p.m. EST being the highest peak of sales when including global purchases. LA, New York and London were the most active cities.