Black Friday Roundup: Strong Start, But Will Sales Hold?

Despite warnings from groups like the OECD that Europe and the U.S. are heading into recession, the flurry of online and mobile activity that has kicked off the holiday shopping season seems to be indicating an altogether different sentiment from consumers.

comScore (NSDQ: SCOR) has released its figures noting that Black Friday sales — the day after Thanksgiving that has come to mark the start of holiday shopping — were up 26 percent compared to the same day a year ago.

In total, comScore said that some $816 million was spent online in the U.S. on the Friday, the biggest day yet in holiday season shopping (comScore records from the beginning of November). To date, some $12.7 billion has been spent online, an increase of 15 percent on the same month a year ago.

What’s not clear is whether that growth in online shopping was reflected in physical, retail shopping, too — or whether more dollars are pouring into online at the expense of brick-and-mortar operations. In years past, online sales were usually shifted to “Cyber Monday” where retailers would push online deals to coincide with people returning to work but still wanting to shop for the holidays. Now the two periods seem to be merging ever closer together.

While the holiday shopping season is usually geared to physical goods, what’s notable in the top-ten most popular gadget buys from Thanksgiving weekend, is that they also point to a much larger proliferation of devices geared at consuming more digital content.

In a list compiled by PriceGrabber, a division of Experian, lists the usual suspects of Sony’s PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii; while Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is the single-most mentioned brand, with three products in the top ten (iPod, MacBook Pro, and iPad 2).

Some other notable highlights:

Amazon: comScore noted that Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) was the most-visited online retailer so far this year, with 50 percent more visits than its nearest online competitor, Walmart — those rankings do not include auction sites like eBay (NSDQ: EBAY). Amazon, meanwhile, itself today noted that this year has been their best-ever for Kindle sales, which sold four times as many as it has on any other Black Friday. As usual, Amazon has not given a figure on how many Kindles that means, exactly, or how well, say, the Kindle Fire tablet has been selling compared to the basic $79 Kindle device. Nor is it clear where those Kindles are getting bought: Amazon sells them online through its own portal, but also through 16,000 retail locations.

B&N: For balance, it’s worth pointing here that Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) has not released any numbers on sales of the Nook over Thanksgiving weekend, but it has today announced a deal whereby those who buy any Nook device gets a $25 gift card, usable for either books or Nook accessories.

eBay/PayPal: Although it was overlooked in comScore’s retail rankings, the auction giant’s payment service PayPal noted a big rise in shopping activity, too, particularly on the mobile platform that working hard to promote these days. There, it says it had a six-fold increase, to 516 percent, in mobile payments volumes on Black Friday compared to the same day a year ago. Customer numbers were up four-fold (371 percent). Like Amazon, the company does not give us that number in actual terms.

eBay’s mobile site, meanwhile, received a bump, too. The number of items purchased on Black Friday was up 2.5 times. GSI Commerce, the eBay company that runs online shopping sites for brick-and-mortar retailers, noted a 254 percent increase in sales via mobile on Black Friday as well., which is eBay’s service that lets consumers compare prices for an item across local stores before purchasing, was also up 692 percent. In other words, the kind of high growth that you see when a service is still relatively new but of interest to consumers.

More on the mobile factor: Even if you combine the number of people using mobile sites to supplement physical shop visits with those that buy directly from mobile devices, mobile commerce still represents a small part of holiday shopping, but its role is growing, and fast: IBM Coremetrics noted a rise in both areas. The number of those using mobiles for research went up to 14.3 percent from 5.6 percent a year ago. Sales, however, remained in single digits, at 9.8 percent versus 3.2 percent in 2010.

The researchers noted that Apple’s iPhone and iPad were the two most-common devices used for mobile commerce in the period, respectively at 5.4 percent and 4.8 percent respectively (meaning that together they accounted for ten percent of all online sales on Black Friday). Android was the third most-used mobile platform at 4.1 percent. Interestingly, it looks like the iPad is also a more sticky device — either that, or iPads belong to people who are more serious online buyers: the conversion rate for those browsing on iPads is 4.6 percent compared to an average of 2.8 percent on other mobile devices, the researches said.

But there is still a long way to go to make the mobile experience more engaging and effective. IBM Coremetrics noted that the “bounce rate” on mobile devices was 41.3 percent compared to 33.1 percent for general online shopping: that means people are visiting one page and leaving before exploring any further — and like a restaurant customer nibbling on an appetizer instead of gorging on a full meal, that makes for bad business in the longer run.