Online spending by U.S. deal seekers exceeded $1 billion by Thanksgiving evening, according to Adobe Digital Index, surging almost 14 percent from a year ago and reflecting a broader trend away from brick-and-mortar shopping.
At the start of the first holiday shopping season since the U.S. Presidential election on November 8, U.S. consumers loosened their purse strings and spent $1.15 billion online between midnight and 5 pm ET on Thursday, according to Adobe.
Traditionally the day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday, has started the holiday shopping season in the United States with retailers offering steep discounts and turning a profit. But its popularity has been on the wane given the emergence of online shopping and cheap deals through the year from retailers including e-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc.
U.S. stores are now opening on Thanksgiving to try and boost in-store sales, while retailers have been offering online deals weeks in advance to cope with lower demand and stiff pricing competition.
“We saw one of our strongest days ever online,” Brian Cornell, chief executive of discount retailer Target, told reporters on Thursday evening. He added that online sales grew by double digits, without giving further details.
The holiday season spanning November and December is crucial for retailers because it can account for as much as 40 percent of annual sales. Retailers try to attract shoppers with deep discounts, sometimes as much as 85 percent.
The National Retail Federation, which has been bullish with projections in the past, expects holiday sales to grow 3.6 percent this year to $655.8 billion.
“Online discounts are earlier and a lot bigger than last year,” said Tamara Gaffney, principal research analyst at Adobe Digital Index.
Called EMIEW3, the roughly 3-foot-tall unit can determine when customers need help and then approach them autonomously, Hitachi said on Friday. Using what it calls “remote brain” technology, the company developed the robot with customer service in mind for use in stores and other public venues.
EMIEW3 is actually the latest iteration in a series following Hitachi’s introduction of the original EMIEW back in 2005. EMIEW2, announced in 2007, featured capabilities such as the ability to move at a brisk human walking pace and to distinguish the human voice from background noise.
EMIEW2 could also use indoor network cameras as “eyes” to locate objects. Artificial intelligence capabilities made it possible for the device to converse much the way a human would, while a predictive function helped it avoid collisions.
Now, EMIEW3 adds several more important features, including the ability to use network cameras and human movement to identify when someone needs assistance and then approach them to offer help. It can also right itself if knocked over.
The “remote brain” system behind it all consists of a robotics IT platform connected to cloud-based processing technology and a remote operation system to monitor and control multiple robots at various locations. Processing is done centrally, so if one robot fails, restoration instructions can be sent from a remote location to resume services quickly.
Weighing about 33 pounds, EMIEW3 can move as fast as 3.7 miles per hour, which is about three times as fast as Pepper’s maximum speed. It will reportedly go on sale in 2018.
Apple’s latest success with Apple Pay includes the addition of support from hundreds of grocery stores within six major chains in the past week: BiLo Holding, 830 stores; Harvey’s and Winn-Dixie, 530; Albertson’s and Jewel-Osco, 180; Shaws and Star Markets, 150; United Food Stores, 60; and Associated Food Stores, 135. Wegmans and Whole Foods were already part of the original 35 retail chains offering Apple Pay in an estimated 225,000 stores, about 5% of all possible U.S. retail locations.
In addition, on Thursday, American First Credit Union said its Visa card now supports Apple Pay, joining more than 500 U.S. banks already supporting the service through Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards.
In the past week, SunTrust and Regions Bank added their support.
McDonald’s has confirmed that more than 50% of its in-store mobile payments at 14,000 restaurants were made with Apple Pay in its first month. Whole Foods recently said it processed more than 150,000 Apple Pay transactions in the first three weeks of the service. And Walgreens, the national drug store chain, said in-store mobile payments had doubled since Apple Pay launched.
Boku Inc, a big online mobile payments company supported by venture capital firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Benchmark Capital, debuted a new service on Thursday that allows consumers to pay with any mobile phone anywhere credit cards are accepted.
Boku already provides carrier billing through about 230 wireless carriers, including AT&T Inc, Vodafone Group Plc and Verizon Communications Inc in more than 60 countries. This service lets people pay with their mobile number and get the transactions charged to their monthly phone bill.
Carrier billing is typically limited to smaller online purchases, either through personal computers or within mobile phone apps.
Boku’s new platform, called Boku Accounts, allows purchases in physical stores, a much bigger market. The service will be branded and offered by wireless carriers to customers, with Boku running the system in the background.
The move puts Boku in closer competition with PayPal, which is pushing its popular online payments service into physical stores. Google Inc is also trying to get its Google Wallet service into stores through a partnership with giants such as MasterCard Inc and Citigroup Inc.
PayPal’s in-store offering works with merchants’ existing point-of-sale terminals, but usually requires a software upgrade. Google Wallet works with phones that have Near-Field Communication, or NFC, chips in them and merchants need a terminal that supports this technology.
Boku’s service comes with a sticker that users can slap on the back of their mobile phones, turning any handset into an NFC-enabled device. It also comes with a payment card that can be swiped using existing retailer terminals, without a software upgrade, according to the company.
“We wanted this to be available in any store,” Ron Hirson, co-founder of Boku, said. “You don’t need a new phone or a new terminal.”
Extending its holiday cheer, Best Buy will feature free smartphones each day in December, subject to a new or upgrade activation and a two-year service agreement from one of the four major U.S. cellular carriers, the retailer announced today.
The offer is good at all Best Buy stores, Best Buy Mobile speciality stores and online starting today. Best Buy said it developed the campaign based on the success of its Free Phone Fridays promotion in October.
Online retailers including Amazon.com have offered a variety of smartphone models for free or nearly free for over a year, and the U.S. carriers have promoted various offers, including AT&T’s recent in-store pairing of one Windows Phone 7 (WP7) device for free with a purchase of another, subject to new service agreements.
Generally, analysts have noted that the free phone campaigns are designed to promote in-store and online traffic, and to help carriers sign up new customers for two-year service plans in an industry where customer turnover is commonplace. The cost of the phone hardware itself can be incidental compared to a carrier’s two-year service fee, analysts explained.
Carriers can charge $70 or more per month for voice, text and data plans for smartphones, although the most powerful smartphones require special monthly charges as well. Depending on the plan, with related fees and taxes, customers can spend $130 or more a month for smartphone service, which results in an annual bill of more than $1,500.
Best Buy said it will have a minimum of four free smartphones available each day, which could work out to one for each of the major carriers. As an example, Best Buy said it could have the Droid Incredible by HTC on Verizon, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 on AT&T, the LG Optimus S on Sprint Nextel and the LG Optimus T on T-Mobile USA. The minimum quantities available will vary by store.