E-Retail Traffic Is Way Up This Holiday Season, Akamai Says—But Don’t Get Too Excited

Holiday shopping traffic on retail websites is up dramatically this year over 2008 levels, according to Cambridge, MA-based Akamai. The company’s Retail Net Usage Index—which includes a highly representative sample of companies engaged in e-commerce—hit a peak level on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, that was 35 percent higher than traffic for the same shopping day in 2008. The numbers for Sunday were even more striking: traffic was up 58 percent over the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2008.

In fact, Web retail traffic has been on a steady crescendo since Thanksgiving, says Pedro Santos, Akamai’s chief strategist for e-commerce. “We actually saw pretty big numbers starting on Thanksgiving and on Black Friday, a little bit smaller on Saturday, and then really big numbers on Sunday,” Santos says. Global traffic for the companies listed on the Net Usage Index peaked at 7.4 million visitors per minute at 2:30 in the afternoon on Sunday, with about 62 percent of that traffic originating from Web users in North America.

And Web shopping traffic today—the day traditionally known as “Cyber Monday”—has already surpassed Sunday’s numbers. As of 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time today, global traffic stood at 7.72 million visitors per minute, a 15 percent increase over the 6.71 million visits per minute observed at the same time on Cyber Monday 2008. Today’s traffic promises to go even higher before the day is out—e-commerce volume on Cyber Monday 2008 didn’t peak until 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

A chart of e-retail traffic on the Web as of 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday, November 30, 2009

A chart of e-retail traffic on the Web as of 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday, November 30, 2009

But while Akamai’s Net Usage Index is a reliable guide to overall e-commerce activity, given that 90 of North America’s top 100 retailers use Akamai’s content distribution network, it’s far less clear whether this year’s traffic numbers are a true sign of economic recovery, for at least three reasons.

For one thing, Akamai’s global network is able to track the number of people visiting its customers’ websites—but not how many of those visits result in actual purchases. “There are reports that some of the Black Friday purchasing numbers are up year-over-year, but what we’re seeing is the browsing,” says Santos. “It’s not clear that there are more sales going on.”

Secondly, it’s difficult to discern signs of recent changes in overall economic activity when e-commerce is subject to such strong, overarching technological trends. Even last year’s e-commerce traffic—in the midst of the worst economic dowturn since the Great Depression—broke the records set the previous year. People are simply doing more and more of their shopping online, partly because e-retailers are making their sites easier to use, partly because there are improved tools for finding good deals online, and partly because of other enticements such as free shipping. “Every year, you are seeing more and more obstacles taken off the table, and that makes e-commerce much simpler from a consumer perspective,” Santos says.

Thirdly, there’s the calendar itself. Because Thanksgiving fell so late in November this year, there’s less time left before the Christmas holidays arrive. “There aren’t many weeks left, in terms of shipping, between now and the end of the year, so there’s a little anxiety about wanting to do as much holiday shopping as possible, as quickly as possible,” says Santos. “I think that’s what’s driving people to do some of their shopping over the weekend” and into today, he says.

When 2009’s holiday sales are totaled up, in other words, they may not be much higher than 2008 levels. The much higher Black Friday and Cyber Monday numbers this year may just be a sign that more people are compressing their shopping into a shorter amount of time.

And it’s highly unlikely that the e-retail gains seen so far will make a dent in unemployment, the current sticky wheel in the economy. John Challenger, CEO of employment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, commented in an e-mail bulletin today that “even if Best Buy or Sears sees increased online sales…that may not prompt more hiring at the brick-and-mortar stores. They may hire a few extra workers for their fulfillment warehouses, but most online operations can operate with fewer workers.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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