It's not just Santa coming to town, but an epic transformation in commerce. The holiday season gives us a glimpse into the future of shopping behavior, and we're not too far from online shopping becoming the modus operandi of American consumers. Strip malls may never be the same.
According to comScore, e-commerce spending is up 15 percent for the first 39 days of the 2011 holiday season. The nearly $25 billion spent online in that period should not be viewed simply as an indication of lots of holiday cheer. With more online shopping taking place throughout the year, and online consumer confidence tracking with it, the notion of having to go to the store is leaving our collective memories.
Meanwhile, online shopping strategies improve with the proliferation of customer ratings and reviews on brand and retail sites, Facebook fan pages with dynamic shopping apps and mobile device technology aimed at streamlining on-the-go customers.
Etsy, the online destination for all things handmade and vintage, is one of the companies best positioned to benefit from this shift in shopping behavior. The company's remarkable growth under CTO-turned-CEO Chad Dickerson may seem technology-driven, but it's also about consumer buying patterns.
"On Etsy, peak holiday shopping begins with Black Friday and continues through the following weeks. This year our community sold a record amount of goods on Cyber Monday," said Emily Bidwell from Etsy's merchandising team. "Tuesday's sales surpassed that amount, and continue to be strong. In our view it's not about one date on the calendar; it's a time of year when people take advantage of the opportunity to find all their gifts at a value."
And that last word, value, is where it really starts to get interesting. With online retailers being challenged by flash sale sites like Park & Bond, the GQ-Gilt Groupe menswear site, and One Kings Lane, which specializes in housewares, both perceived and real value is on a premium.
Speaking at the Wharton Business School's BizTech event after Black Friday, Edison Ventures' Mike Kopelman said, "the barrier to enter the flash deals business is not high, but the barrier to endure is. "
This may be true, but even if sites like Jack Threads and Fab.com don't have long life spans as businesses, the short-term impact on major retailers and consumer behavior is huge. They are re-writing what value means to consumers, along with companies like Groupon and LivingSocial, which raised another $176 million from private investors recently.
It used to be that Black Friday was a day that consumers knew they'd get the absolute best deal and the most value. That's why the alarms were set and the cars packed with gifts shortly thereafter.
Now there's Green Monday the following week, which happens be called Cyber Week. And Free Shipping Day -- the last day to get a gift delivered before Christmas Eve -- which falls on Dec. 16th this year -- so more price-conscious deals are to be expected. All that said, why worry about being trampled at the entryway to some big box retailer and missing time with the family (or sleep) if that same deal -- if not a better one -- is available the following week or month online?
Perhaps this is a thought one will soon have. But...
"It's not about shopping in person one day, then online another. People are shopping in different channels and expecting the same experience no matter where they are," said Etsy's Bidwell.
Well, OK. So if the Black Friday experience -- at least the fun, shopping-spree experience -- is still desired online, where will consumers go? The main thing that online shopping sites don't provide compared to their brick-and-mortar brethren is a feeling of shared experience and interest. We may all be fighting for that Tickle-Me Elmo or Banana Republic sweater, but at least we're fighting for the same reason.
Lyst.com, a social curation startup that combines features of Twitter with elements of music discovery sites like Last.fm, provides a look at a possible answer. Its members sign up and receive a personalized feed of fashion items relevant to their own tastes. So there you go, reaching for that sweater knowing someone else shares your interest.
"Socially-curated shopping was designed principally to help people discover items for themselves, however, it's now changing the way gifts are bought online as well," said Lyst.com CEO Chris Morton. "Users can now share detailed lists of items they love with friends and family to make sure they get the perfect present as the holiday season approaches."
As the reliance on Black Friday, and brick-and-mortar shopping trips, decreases and the focus on online increases, companies like Etsy, Gilt and Lyst.com stand ready to support your search for unique gifts that come with the backing of a community. But even if it's not them on the front lines, major e-retailers like Walmart and Macy's are certain to adjust to the changing landscape, as well.
Many of these Fortune companies and fashion retailers are already populating their sites with customer conversations in the forms of ratings, reviews, questions, answers and customer stories. The next layer will involve bringing your social networks onto these sites, or vice versa.
Ultimately, you may have to give up that feeling of finding some amazing deal hidden away from the view of others on a Black Friday morning in some back aisle or discounted clothing bin of a big box retailer. In exchange, you'll end up with a lot more time to make your gift purchases backed with the kind of buying confidence that only your friends and family -- Facebook friends and Twitter followers included -- can give you.
Regardless of how it all transpires and what's gained or lost, we should all be pretty excited about the things to come both with the holidays and in the world of commerce.
Follow Joah Spearman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoahSpearman