ATLANTA (AP) — More Americans are deciding to shop online this holiday season instead of heading to crowded stores.
But that alone won’t save what is turning out to be a ho-hum Christmas for department stores and clothing chains.
Online sales have surged 9 percent so far this holiday season as Walmart, Macy’s and other retailers improved their websites and prices to better compete with their online nemesis Amazon.com. Meanwhile, shopping at physical stores is up just 2 percent.
Still, it’s estimated that for every $9 shoppers spend in physical stores during the two-month season that ends on New Year’s Eve, they’ll spend only $1 online, according to research firm comScore.
Why? Retailers haven’t solved many of the challenges that initially turned off many shoppers from buying online. Some websites still crash fairly frequently. Hot merchandise often sells out quickly online. And retailers haven’t persuaded people to use their shopping apps on smartphones and tablets.
These lingering problems come from years of brick-and-mortar retailers mostly ignoring the possibilities of online shopping while online giants like Amazon got shoppers used to the convenience of it. Solving these problems will help determine how retailers fare as shoppers increasingly buy online.
“The people that are going to win ... are the ones that are there for the customer however they want to shop,” said Joel Anderson, president and CEO of Walmart.com.
The growing interest in online shopping is evident this season. Sales were up 2 percent to $176.7 billion from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, compared with the same period last year, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago store data tracker. Meanwhile, online spending from desktop computers was up 9 percent during the same period to $37.8 billion, according to comScore.
Still, analysts say online shopping isn’t reaching its full potential because of a number of factors.
Sellouts and crashes: In the early days of online shopping, frustrated shoppers often found the items they wanted to buy online were out of stock. In recent years, though, retailers have worked to boost their online inventory: For examples, Walmart has doubled the number of items it carries online this year to 6 million.
Overall, retailers are better prepared than they were a few years ago to fill online orders via their inventory in stores or in manufacturers’ distribution centers, said Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru. But they still run out of popular merchandise, analysts say.
Also, retailers have come a long way toward fixing some of the problems that caused their sites to crash and freeze up in online shopping’s early days.
Crashes and slowdowns occur far less today, said Aaron Rudger, senior manager web performance of Keynote, which monitors retailers online performance. Keynote estimates that 23 percent of retailers had website problems during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, compared with 71 percent five years ago.
But crashes still happen far more often than they should, says Rudger, who found that the Motorola website crashed on “Cyber Monday," the Monday after Thanksgiving. Urban Outfitters also crashed, he said. “Those are pretty well-known brands, so that to us is a bit of a surprise,” Rudger said.
Getting shoppers to use mobile apps: People shopping on their smartphones and tablets usually use retailers’ websites. That’s a problem because having specific shopping apps is important when it comes to converting window shoppers into buyers.
That’s because apps are more streamlined than websites, which can be hard to navigate on smaller screens. Also, most apps store shoppers’ information so customers don’t have to type in a lot of information each time they buy.
“One of the reasons people don’t convert (to mobile shopping) is that there is a lot of friction in the process,” said Andrew Lipsman, vice president of industry analysis for comScore. “If I have to enter all my information on the phone, I might not convert. But if there’s an easy log-in and all I have to do is one-click or a couple of easy clicks to buy, people will convert that way.”
Analysts say retailers should better market their shopping apps.
“Retailers should put specific incentives in front of consumers to download and use that app,” Lipsman said.