By Jill Schlesinger
Tribune Content Agency
With the election settled and wage growth strengthening, there could be an upside surprise to retail results this holiday season. Americans are expected to increase spending by 3 to 3.5 percent from a year ago. Regardless of whether sales increase by more or less than expected, the focus will return to the growth of digital as the main driver of consumer behavior.
In a recent report, the government said that overall e-commerce jumped 15.7 percent in the third quarter from a year ago, while total retail sales increased by just 2.2 percent in the same period. Despite the rapid growth of digital, most shopping still occurs in physical stores. Last quarter, e-commerce accounted for just 8.4 percent of overall retail sales.
But these numbers are somewhat misleading, because overall retail sales include the big-ticket automobile category, as well as gas and groceries. According to consultancy Strategy&, these groups are responsible for almost half of total retail sales. Without them, online's penetration of its "addressable market" is closer to 16 percent.
The subset of digital commerce that continues to power sales is mobile. According to Adobe Digital research, in 2016, "mobile will overtake desktop for the first time in terms of driving visits to a website during the holiday season." That's why you will see that retailers are trying to find you wherever you are. This is sometimes referred to as "omnichannel," and ultimately it means that companies must marry their online and offline strategies.
It also means that we consumers should be doing the same thing. To use technology effectively, start by utilizing a budgeting app like Santa's Bag or The Christmas Gift List. Once you have your gift list, start tracking their prices on Google and Amazon and then on PriceGrabber or PriceJump on Savings.com. PoachIt tracks your desired products and then alerts you when they go on sale.
You should know that the hottest gifts this season - VR devices (Oculus, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive), Pokemon, Barbie, Lego, Hot Wheels and Frozen toys, as well as grown-up toys such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, are unlikely to see deep discounts. And if you wait too long, you may be out of luck, especially if inventory is thin.
If you plan to hit the brick and mortar stores, be sure to download apps like ShopSavvy and RedLaser, which allow you to scan barcodes and compare prices at other big retailers nearby. Your research may steer you toward some unfamiliar names, but don't be deterred. Despite the ability to find steep discounts, 25 percent of customers end up paying higher prices because they are loyal to retailers with whom they have shopped previously.
If you are like the millions of Americans who like the ease of gift cards, there are basically two types: merchant-specific cards, which bear the name of a retailer or restaurant and are redeemable only at that spot, and bank cards, which carry the logo of a payment network and can be spent wherever that payment method is accepted. Bank cards usually have a purchase fee of $4 to $6 and can't expire for at least five years from the purchase date or from the last date any additional money was loaded onto it.
The Federal Trade Commission says online auction sites may sell counterfeit or stolen cards. If you buy discounted cards, inspect them to make sure that the codes on the back haven't been scratched off. If you have a problem, contact the issuer, and if you can't resolve a dispute, consider filing a complaint with the FTC or the Comptroller of the Currency Customer Assistance Group.
Contact Jill Schlesinger, senior business analyst for CBS News, at askjill@JillonMoney.com.
Printed in the December 11 - December 24, 2016 edition