Shift to e-commerce channels 'accelerating'

First-quarter revenue from U.S. online retail sites topped $44.3 billion, posting its fastest rate of growth in almost five years.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Various and sundry astonishing statistics were reported about the rise of e-commerce during the fourth quarter of 2011. There were even several days on which e-commerce sales surpassed $1 billion in a single 24-hour period: Cyber Monday and Free Shipping Day.

But even after the holiday retail spending binge was over, growth rates for U.S. online retail sites continued to post impressive double-digit gains, according to new data from comScore.

The research and tracking firm reported that first-quarter revenue generated by e-commerce activities were $44.3 billion in the United States, up 17 percent from the year-earlier period.

Here are some other things to know:

  • Almost 50 percent of all e-commerce transactions during the quarter included free shipping, which is an increasingly important differentiator for online merchants.
  • Close to 40 percent of tablet owners made at least one online purchase on their device during the past month. The most common item purchased was in the apparel category.
  • As you might expect, the most common item purchased in cyberspace was some form of digital content or subscription. Software, consumer electronics, jewelry and event tickets all grew at least 17 percent during the quarter, as well.

What makes comScore's latest report particularly interesting is that year-over-year sales haven't grown this much since the fourth quarter of 2007. According to the research firm, that's because the shift to e-commerce is "accelerating" not because overall retail sales have climbed significantly.

That could spell trouble for retailers that haven't spent enough time on their e-commerce strategy.

There are several different forces contributing to the e-commerce shift, but in my mind, the three most important influences are these:

  • Free shipping - Retailers would do well to remember that not everyone wants everything the next day, so offering longer delivery times with free shipping options might help seal a sale.
  • Social media - Recommendations from friends hold a lot of weight in the e-tail world. Facebook and, increasingly, the Pinterest pinning site will be major forces in driving online sales. Just this week, as an example, turnkey e-commerce service BigCommerce.com announced an integration between its platform and Pinterest.
  • Mobile devices - The tablet purchases sales reported by comScore in its latest data was actually sort of low. Forrester Research reports that approximately half of all tablet users are using their devices for shopping purposes.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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