Consumer Insights
January 28, 2016

Key e-commerce trends from the 2015 holiday season

Consumers mostly search on mobile devices, and those searches are often for discounts and may occur while they’re in a store.

With the holiday season now behind us, it’s time for a debrief so that plans can be drawn for next year to ensure greater ecommerce success. Let’s start with traffic sources to retail sites during December. Search is still by far the top driver of traffic and it’s getting even bigger. This year, 45 percent of referred traffic to the Hitwise Retail 500 (an aggregation of the top 500 online retail sites based on number of online visits over a 30-day period) came from a search engine. That’s up from 41 percent in December 2014. And, as you might have guessed, the majority of search is now mobile with 56 percent of the holiday season’s searches that resulted in a click to a top retail site conducted on either a smartphone or tablet. In fact, sales made from smartphones nearly doubled year-over-year in the US according to the Adobe Digital Index.

We’ve found that mobile searches are more likely to be focused on sales and discounts and are often occurring within a retailer’s physical store at the precise moment when a customer is on the verge of making a purchase or opting to go elsewhere. As such, search campaigns must take a mobile-first approach and maximize the conversion opportunity, whether that’s providing a mobile coupon that shoppers can use at the register right away or providing inventory and pricing information to lure a price-sensitive shopper from a competitor around the corner.

Social media sites also increased their share of referred traffic to retailers this holiday season by a relative 21 percent year-over-year. That’s likely due in part to the increase of “Buy Now” on social sites. Interestingly, between 2013 and 2014 there was actually a decline in referred traffic from social media, but that trend reversed course for retailers this holiday season and marketers should be working in 2016 to incorporate action buttons in their social posts.

Multimedia, especially video, also drove an increasing share of traffic as retailers become savvier at using video to drive traffic and even conducting transactions. In December, received the most upstream traffic from YouTube of any of the Hitwise Retail 500 sites except for Amazon. Marketers should also look to GameStop, Sephora and Victoria’s Secret, which also received a higher than expected share of traffic from YouTube, for successful examples of multimedia campaigns.

Interestingly, we observed that email sites like and referred a smaller share of traffic to retailers this year than they did in 2014. However, this is likely a reflection of consumers’ growing use of mobile devices and apps to access email. Connexity registers clicks on email viewed in mobile apps as direct traffic, not traffic referred from the major email services like Gmail, Yahoo, MSN and Comcast. In fact, we know that retailers are sending more email than ever. This trend toward more consumers opening email on mobile devices underscores how critical it is that retailers focus on mobile site optimization.

Dates and other trends

Regardless of channel, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday growing bigger and more dominant each year, marketers are increasingly looking for ways to drive traffic between Cyber Monday and Christmas Day—even if they have to invent new “holidays” onto which to anchor digital campaigns.

One successful example is Small Business Saturday, a shopping holiday launched by American Express in 2010 to promote shopping at small and local businesses on the Saturday immediately after Black Friday. While Small Business Saturday-related searches in 2015 were only about half of what Hitwise registered in 2014, they were still double what we saw during the 2013 holiday season.

Green Monday is another manufactured holiday which was first coined by eBay in 2008, and it’s steadily (albeit slowly) gaining consumer traction. This year Green Monday fell on December 14th and online searches related to the holiday were 36 percent greater than 2014. Though it’s important to point out that searches are still less than a third of what we saw for Small Business Saturday, so the date still has a long way to go before it becomes a household term.

The growth in online ordering has consumers wondering, if not worried, about the status of their deliveries—even during a holiday season like 2015 without a widespread winter storm. Hitwise found that visits to the top delivery sites like FedEx, UPS, US Postal Service and DHL were up 45 percent during the week ending December 19 (the week during which visits peaked) over the same period in 2014. Marketers need to be more proactive in communicating delivery status so keep customers calm and informed during the stressful holiday season.

Another trend we’ve observed is that searches for gift cards—a notoriously last-minute purchase—were even later this year than in years past, which is likely due to the ability to order gift cards easily online, including through mobile devices. The peak day for gift card searches was on Christmas Eve, while last year it was on the 23rd. Notable too is the fact that gift card-related searches on Christmas Day are almost as high even when eliminating variations including “exchange,” “trade” and “swap,” which have become popular. Email and mobile campaigns designed to sell last minute electronic gift cards in the final hours should do well considering this trend.

And don’t forget about Christmas Day. Christmas Day is when all those gadgets people received as gifts come to life as consumers are busy downloading driver software, apps and registering devices. In fact, searches for the words “download” and “activate” are 30 percent higher on Christmas Day than the week prior.

Consumers are still engaged with their new stuff and in the early days of the retention stage so retailers/marketers should make sure that new (and returning) buyers from the holiday period are happy. Engage consumers today to ensure they have a positive experience with their latest holiday haul. In doing so, you’ll set themselves up well for a solid 2016 boosted by returning customers who want more.