Two women window shopping

Datacember 7: Small Business Saturday remains an enigma

Two women window shopping at a boutique

In a world where consumers shift seamlessly from online to in-store as they shop, Datacember has become intrigued with the interplay between Small Business Saturday and big-business e-commerce.

We discovered last year how difficult it is — even with data — to draw iron-clad conclusions when many outside factors (literally when you consider the weather) are at play. But that never stopped us before.

Last year, we looked at small data — a mom-and-pop shop run by the mom-and-pop of my then-Datacember colleague. And we looked at some big data that painted a mixed picture of just what was going on.

Last year, engagement and visits online were up over the previous year, but online conversions were down. Were online conversions down because more customers were shopping in stores? After all, the folks behind Small Business Saturday reported that spending at independent businesses was up 14 percent over 2014.

Were visits and engagement (measured by product views) up because more people were heading online instead of to stores? Or were traffic and engagement up because people were standing in stores comparison shopping and seeking gift-buying inspiration?

Hard to tell.

This year we took a different approach. We took a look at overall visits, products views and conversions on e-commerce sites on Small Business Saturday and surrounding days to see how the day fared in comparison.

What we discovered: It remains hard to draw iron-clad conclusions about shoppers’ behavior on Small Business Saturday. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from mulling and speculating. Let’s start with visits and product views, which not surprisingly are related.

Product Views and Visits in November

You can see that both categories peaked at times you’d expect — Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Thanksgiving racked up some big numbers as well. They are all marquee days for holiday shopping.

Both metrics plunged on Small Business Saturday. But they weren’t at the lowest levels of the week, which came on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. And when you look at overall spending at independent businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it’s hard to argue that dollars were migrating to the small brick-and-mortar stores.

The National Federation of Independent Business and American Express, the forces behind Small Business Saturday, reported that spending at independent businesses was down to $15.4 billion this year from $16.2 billion in 2015, a drop of 4.9 percent.

In fact, when you look at product views, which serves as a measure of engagement, Small Business Saturday was roughly right at the daily average for November. In terms of online visits, Small Business Saturday came in well below the average  — about 14.8 percent lower.

So, does mean that on Small Business Saturday, consumers took to brick-and-mortar, leaving the web to a relatively small group of consumers really intent on finding a great gift? Well, if we look at conversions, it looks like whoever those online shoppers were, they weren’t all that ready to buy.

Daily Conversions in November

You can see that conversions followed product views and visits into a gully. In fact, conversions took off again on Sunday, up 24 percent from Saturday, on their way to a lofty height on CyberMonday.

One other piece of evidence helps us unravel the mystery slightly. By looking at online shoppers’ intent on Small Business Saturday, we could argue that the day was a browsing day, at least compared to the rest of the long weekend.

Datacember classifies browse vs. buy days by looking at the number of product views per conversion on a given day. Our thinking: The more products consumers view before they buy, the more they’re window shopping, or browsing. The fewer products they view, the more intent they are on making a purchase.

Browse vs. Buy in November

It’s true that the entire end of November shifted to buy days, days on which the number of products viewed per conversion was below November’s average. But you can see that Small Business Saturday is on the high-product-view side in the closing days of the month.

Could it be that those product views were happening in stores or at lunch tables in between brick-and-mortar shopping stops? It’s possible.

Sure there is the issue of lower spending at independent businesses, but remember the noise we mentioned? It just so happens that there are indications that shoppers are spending less than they did a year ago.

The National Retail Federation says shoppers on average spent $10 less shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend. Could that account for the slide in spending at mom-and-pop shops?

It certainly could — especially given that AmEx and the National Federation of Independent Business reported that while overall spending was down, the number of people shopping at mom-and-pops on Small Business Saturday was up by 13 percent.

So, again, we’re left with some theoretical conclusions about Small Business Saturday, but no hard answers. In some ways the difficulty in reading the signs is a reminder of how difficult it can be to reconcile online and in-store data.

Beyond that, it’s a reminder that consumers have largely moved past viewing shopping as either online or in-store. They see shopping as one unified experience conducted with different tools for different jobs.

Business, large and small, need to take that into account and be ready to offer consumers the products and experiences they are looking for where and when they come looking for them.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.