Holiday shoppers in the US spent 3% more than the previous year, led by online spending spikes on furniture and home improvement.
As might be expected, online retail boomed as in-person lagged, according to data released Saturday by Mastercard.
The company said online sales in the 75 days before Christmas jumped 49% from the same year-earlier period.
The biggest bump over last year came in home improvement, continuing a yearlong trend. As people stayed home during the pandemic, they spent more on making their surroundings comfortable. Online home improvement sales soared about 80%.
“American consumers turned the holiday season on its head, redefining ‘home for the holidays’ in a uniquely 2020 way. They shopped from home for the home, leading to record e-commerce growth,” Steve Sadove, senior advisor for Mastercard, said in a statement.
Holiday shoppers seemed to be focused on nesting, as online furniture and furnishing sales climbed 31%, and electronics and appliances climbed 6%.
A rise in overall holiday spending – even by just 3% – will likely be met with cheers from retailers, many of which have had a difficult year bringing customers in.
“And, consumers shopped earlier than ever before. Across our expanded 75-day holiday shopping season, sales were up 3.0%, a testament to the holiday season and strength of retailers and consumers alike,” said Sadove in a statement.
The holiday shopping season is marked off differently by some firms, but for many, it begins on the day after Thanksgiving, so-called Black Friday. Foot traffic on that day in US stores had fallen 52%, while online sales climbed 22%, according to Sensormatic Solutions. Mastercard said on Saturday that sales that day fell 16% year over year.
But “Thanksgiving weekend through Cyber Monday remained a key time for shoppers, with Black Friday being the top spending day of the 2020 holiday season,” Mastercard said in a statement.
In-store retail sales for items that are usually holiday staples slipped, as expected. In-person clothing sales dropped 19%, while luxury items dropped 21%, according to Mastercard.
In-person jewelry sales slipped 4%, while online sales rose 45%, according to Mastercard.
Overall, in-person department store shopping fell 10%, but rose about 3% online.
“Buy online, pick up in-store as well as technologies like contactless were key for retailers this season,” said Mastercard.
About 38% of US shoppers had planned to spend less this holiday season, according to a study from Deloitte.
FedEx is placing daily package limits on some businesses as its shipping network faces capacity issues during the pandemic-fueled surge in online holiday shopping.
Carriers have taken similar steps before, but small business owners told Business Insider that FedEx hasn’t been transparent about the current wave of quotas, which have been as low as 75 packages per day and hit them right before Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Shipping experts told Business Insider that smaller businesses are likely getting hit the hardest because of worse access to customer support, fewer resources to make alternative shipping arrangements, and less bargaining power with FedEx.
The pandemic has also forced UPS, Amazon, and other major carriers to impose restrictions on businesses and scramble to add capacity during what experts have called “shipageddon.”
Like many e-commerce businesses, Letterfolk held its annual holiday sale early this year – the week before Black Friday – in an attempt to get customers’ orders to their doorsteps before the pandemic-fueled surge in online shopping overwhelmed mail carriers.
Letterfolk, which makes bespoke letter boards and other home decor and is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has four full-time employees and five to 10 part-timers during peak season. But on the Saturday after its sale, co-founder Johnny Galbraith had gathered all hands on deck, even rounding up family and friends to help fulfill the flurry of orders.
“We were feeling great because we had done our holiday sale early, we had about 3,000 orders in the queue, and that was after already having shipped out a decent volume,” Galbraith said.
But when he got home Saturday night, Galbraith got a call from his FedEx representative, who told him Letterfolk would be capped at its September shipping levels plus an additional 10%.
“The math on that worked out to be 110 packages a day,” Galbraith said. That equaled out to less than 4% of the orders his company was waiting to ship that Saturday.
“We had been pretty loyal to FedEx, probably 75% of our shipping business has gone through them, the [remaining] balance going through USPS, and so we didn’t really have any contingency plans,” Galbraith said. He attempted to find a workaround, even offering to personally drive the packages more than 400 miles to larger FedEx hubs in Denver or Las Vegas, but was unsuccessful.
“I felt like this could really compromise our entire small business operation. We’ll lose the trust of our customers,” he said. “And then to apply it the week before Black Friday with no warning, it was just unbelievable. It was just crazy to have to adapt to that among all the other challenges that a year with COVID is presenting.”
Galbraith isn’t alone, either in being capped by FedEx this holiday season or in facing challenges getting clear answers from the company about the quotas.
Business owners from Portland, Oregon, to Toronto, Canada, told Business Insider they’ve faced daily limits of just a fraction of their expected shipping volume – in one case as low as 75 packages per day – and in some instances weren’t told about the limits by FedEx ahead of time.
“FedEx expected an unprecedented surge in packages during this season, and we implemented various measures proactively to prepare. This included hiring more than 70,000 seasonal workers, moving to seven-day operations and accelerating Sunday delivery capabilities, improving the efficiency of our delivery routes, and, as always, proactively working with our customers to understand their expected volume and identify opportunities to ensure the best possible service throughout the season,” FedEx spokesperson Janna Hughes told Business Insider in a statement.
“In some cases, volume has significantly exceeded customer projections. We know how important it is to our customers that their packages are delivered on time, and we remain committed to working with them on ways to leverage our network flexibility,” she added.
FedEx and other carriers have been forced to take extreme steps to prepare for the unprecedented holiday rush expected this year as COVID-19 exposure risks drive more shoppers online and more packages into carriers’ shipping networks.
Scott Wingo, co-founder of e-commerce software company ChannelAdvisor and the host of an e-commerce podcast, coined it “shipageddon.“
According to analysis from eMarketer, online shopping is expected to grow 35.8% this year, and logistics data company ShipMatrix recently told the Wall Street Journal that, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it expects there to be an excess of about 7 million packages per day that the shipping industry won’t have the capacity to ship.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that UPS imposed limits on major retailers, including Nike, Gap, L.L. Bean, Hot Topic, Newegg, and Macy’s. Last week, CNBC reported that Amazon had capped the number of products third-party sellers can ship to its warehouses, causing them to lose out on some holiday sales.
Jason Goldberg, chief strategist for RetailGeek and co-host of the podcast with Wingo, told Business Insider that, while carriers have rolled out package limits and higher rates in past years in response to increased shipping volumes, rarely did they actually refuse to pick up packages.
Another key difference with companies like Letterfolk, he said, is that while FedEx has conversations with larger retailers months in advance in order to estimate how much they’ll need to ship, many smaller businesses don’t have that level of access to FedEx or the leverage to negotiate better prices and quotas.
“Nike or Gap were not surprised in the slightest that they hit their caps… they knew what their cap was, they were informed well in advance,” he said. “It’s more likely to be a surprise for the smaller shipper.”
While it’s possible a particular business owner may have missed communication from FedEx about the caps, Goldberg said that multiple businesses in an e-commerce group he belongs to reported being blindsided by FedEx’s limits.
‘Caught us off guard’
That was the case for Second Closet, a Canada-based self-storage company that began using its warehouse space to help businesses fulfill their e-commerce orders during the pandemic.
“We found out one day, about a week before Black Friday Cyber Monday, that FedEx was going to cap us at 80 shipments a day,” Jarrett Stewart, senior operations manager at Second Closet, told Business Insider.
But Second Closet didn’t find out about its own quota directly from FedEx – it only learned about the new caps from one of its own merchants. That business had received an email from a FedEx representative with instructions not to send more than 80 packages per day on Cyber Monday and the day after.
“Basically, if you have 100 packages on Monday, please have the warehouse hold back 20 packages until the following day. The volumes in the network are extremely high at the moment and will get even more crazy over the next week, so we just need to manage capacity,” the FedEx rep said in the email, which was seen by Business Insider.
“Moving forward, I now have to submit and get approval when you are shipping 30 packages or more, which can take some time,” they added.
That email implied the caps might only apply during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Stewart said. But that Thursday, the merchant received another email from FedEx asking the merchant to remind Second Closet about its daily limits after they shipped 135 packages on Wednesday, suggesting the caps had been extended.
“Caught us off guard, and it wasn’t for the lack of asking for a heads up,” Stewart said, adding that while FedEx had warned Second Closet about possible delays this holiday season, it provided nothing beyond “generic statements” when he asked about the caps.
As a result, Stewart said, Second Closet couldn’t “set expectations with merchants on a proactive basis,” and has had to issue refunds in some cases.
‘Highly chaotic and disorganized’
Multiple small business owners said they were similarly frustrated at the lack of clarity from FedEx around who would face shipping limits, how the limits were determined, how long they would be in place for, and whether they could help reduce some of the bottleneck by dropping off shipments at FedEx’s hubs.
“The little guys are complaining that it’s highly chaotic and disorganized and that no one’s taking their calls and they’re getting bad information… the communication is very spotty and ad hoc,” RetailGeek’s Goldberg said.
Stewart said FedEx has not been as responsive as other carriers in answering his questions about peak season challenges, adding: “They will always point you towards their different phone numbers, to different emails for customer support, so it’s hard to have that one-to-one relationship with an account rep.”
“It’s really been inconsistent,” another business owner in Portland, Oregon, told Business Insider. “The day after Cyber Monday, they called and said we were capped at 150 units. We brought everything else to our FedEx hub, and they were okay with that. Then the word from our account manager was we’re capped at 150 unless there is more room in the truck.”
Several business owners said they also tried to bypass their shipping limits by dropping packages at FedEx’s distribution hubs, to varying degrees of success – but that also introduces other issues.
“There is a big loophole in this whole system… FedEx and UPS are not in the business of turning away packages,” Goldberg said, “so they don’t actually have a robust infrastructure to enforce those caps.”
“If you drive those packages to a distribution center or a FedEx store and drop them off, they’re highly unlikely to get refused because they don’t even get scanned when you drop them off… they’re going to get processed later,” he said. “A lot of small sellers have bypassed their caps by just finding some alternative way to get them into the network.”
‘A small guy can’t do that’
While FedEx declined to share details about how it determines daily limits, experts said smaller businesses are likely being hit the hardest.
“I’ve been particularly worried about the small merchant,” Wingo told Business Insider. “The problem is, they don’t have the ability to go and negotiate a quota.”
Larger businesses can, as part of larger conversations around things like exclusivity and shipping rates, also tell FedEx what they expect to ship and negotiate higher shipping limits.
“A small guy can’t do that. You just don’t have the financial leverage,” Wingo said.
“Think about who FedEx least wants to alienate for next year,” Goldberg said. “It’s a Walmart, right? It’s not the mom and pop shipper.”
Galbraith said he understood that dynamic, admitting Letterfolk is “a drip in the ocean of packages that FedEx is moving.” But, he added, “I was hoping to hear more from FedEx about this issue… to make sure that you’re not being singled out as a small business owner.”
“I understand if it was being applied consistently,” he continued. “But a couple hundred packages for a small business – it kneecaps everything that we’re doing. And so for us to come out of this and then give FedEx all of our business again… I just don’t see that happening.”
Amazon’s third-party sellers are saying the company’s cap on the number of products they can ship to warehouses is hurting their holiday sales and making it difficult to replenish supply, according to a new report from CNBC.
Amazon rolled out the new policy in August in an effort to conserve space, despite the creation of more warehouses across the country, during a pandemic-driven online sales surge.
Amazon set the limit by factoring in the last 90 days of sales for any given item, and sellers told CNBC that they didn’t think the company was considering the high demand of the holiday season when setting those restrictions. The company also says it caps the number of shipments for a new product at 200 units.
According to one third-party seller that spoke to the outlet, Amazon capped the number of units per shipment at 230. He said that number has been in the thousands in the past few years.
As CNBC notes, Amazon said back in August that third-party sellers can send in more stock as they sell products. But sellers told the outlet that their shipments are delayed when they send them to the company’s warehouses. Sellers also said that they’re worried about their listings being bumped down by Amazon’s algorithms if they run out of supply, according to the report.
Another seller, Jerry Kavesh, told CNBC that there’s a delay in about 30 of his units in entering one of Amazon’s warehouses.
“It’s been that way for five days,” Kavesh told CNBC. “It’s killing us.”
Amazon said its cap on shipments also applies to its own brands, per CNBC. Some sellers told the outlet that they expect this year’s sales to exceed those from last year, but the shipment limitations are still cutting into potentially higher sales.
In response to Business Insider’s request for comment, Amazon said it will be providing further details regarding the claims made in the CNBC report soon.
This year’s holiday shopping season has been forecast to be one of the busiest ever – online shopping is expected to rise 35% this year. The expected influx of online sales has led experts to warn of a “shipageddon” in which retailers and shipping companies are forced to scramble to keep up with the surge in business.
The report comes as Amazon’s treatment of its third-party sellers remains under scrutiny. The e-commerce company faced questioning from Congress this past summer over allegations that the firm released new products through its private label that appear almost identical to those sold by third-party sellers. The House determined that Amazon indeed used third-party seller data to inform its own copies of the most popular items listed on its online marketplace.
Employees also spoke out in 2019 about how easily Amazon can scrape third-party seller data and share it with its own retail team.
Amazon has since stressed that small businesses are thriving on its online marketplace. Amazon said third-party sales surpassed $3.5 billion during its Prime Day event this year, a growth the company said its own retail business hasn’t seen.