Thanks to gadgets like smartphones and iPads, Americans now live in a shop-anywhere, shop-anytime society. It is a transformation has taken place in a little over a decade, and retailers who ignore the lure of the Internet do so at their peril.

That is the message found in the results of survey of Twin Cities area shoppers conducted this fall by four marketing professors at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business.

For the past 14 years the professors have conducted the St. Thomas Holiday Sentiment Survey that is designed to measure the intent of shoppers: how much they think they will spend for holiday gifts, what they will spend it on, and where they will spend it.

“While results of the survey closely followed the ups and downs of the economy, over the years we’ve followed the amazing growth in online shopping at the expense of traditional shopping in stores or with catalogs,” said Dr. Dave Brennan, one of the professors.

“Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau tell that online shopping is growing at a faster pace than traditional retail shopping,” he said. “Over the past 10 years total retail sales increased $308 billion, or 30 percent, while online sales increased $65 billion, or 292 percent. A decade ago online shopping accounted for 2.3 percent of all retail sales; today it is 7.4 percent.

“When our Holiday Sentiment Survey began in 2002, shoppers told us said they would spend 51 percent of their holiday budget at shopping malls and downtowns and 7 percent via the Internet. Today, 14 years later, the malls and downtowns are tied with the Internet at about 39 percent each. It is a significant loss for malls but a huge gain for online shopping.”

This year the professors decided to add several additional questions … all dealing with online shopping … to their annual survey. Results are based on 307 responses from households in the 13-county Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes two counties in western Wisconsin. The respondents reflect the demographics of the area as well as those who responded to previous holiday spending surveys.

The additional questions asked respondents: where they are when they do online shopping (for example, at home, work or in a store); what kind of devices they use (a laptop, tablet or smartphone); what kind of information they are looking for (product information, price comparison or to make a purchase); and what kinds of websites do they use (Amazon, search engine or a manufacturer’s website).

“The results of these survey questions confirm things we’ve been observing anecdotally,” said Jonathan Seltzer, who teaches international marketing and distribution channels, “and taken together they point to dramatic changes in the world of retailing: consumers are now shopping anywhere, they no longer have to be in stores, and they are shopping at any time of day or night.”

Here are some findings:

  • When asked where they physically are when using electronic devices for shopping, the results indicate shoppers research products while at work or school but tend make the purchase later while at home. For example, when they are at work or school 54 percent of respondents use the internet to learn about a product but 17 percent use it to make the purchase. However, when they are at home, 35 percent use the Internet for product information but 51 percent use it to make the purchase.
  • Shoppers no longer need to rely on sales people in stores for product information. When respondents are in stores, 49 percent use the Internet to compare prices and 37 percent use it for product information. Only 10 percent use it to make the purchase.
  • What kind of websites do the respondents use to do their shopping? Sixty-two percent use a search engine like Google to research a product but only 10 percent use a search engine to buy something. On the other hand, 14 percent use a retailer’s online website like Amazon for research, but 58 percent use a retailer’s website like Amazon to make the purchase.
  • What devices are most popular for online shopping? It depends on what category of website is being used for shopping, but for most types of shopping-related activity, the most popular device is a laptop, followed by desktop, tablet and smartphone. However, when it comes to searching social media websites while shopping, the smartphones come out ahead.

“People might prefer making their online purchases while at home because it is more quiet, they have more room and time to spread out any information collected to help them with their decision, and it could be easier to enter the necessary information using the desktop or laptop at home,” said Jonathan Seltzer, who teaches international marketing and distribution channels.

“This is a clear shift in consumer behavior,” Rathod said. “Not only are retailers making it easier to shop online, the devices, like the bigger screens on Apple’s iPhones 6, are getting easier to use whether you are in a store, at home or riding in a car.”

There was one bit of survey data that the professors didn’t expect. “We analyzed our data to see, demographically, who were the heaviest users of the Internet and what percent of their holiday budget was spent online,” said Dr. Lorman Lundsten, a professor emeritus of marketing who formerly taught marketing research and strategy. “Not surprisingly, we found that those between the ages of 18 and 44 used the internet more than those 60 and older. And we found that women made 40 percent of their purchases online compared to 32 percent for men. But one thing that surprised us is there was no difference between high-income households and low-income households. They spent the same percent of their holiday budget online.”

The St. Thomas Holiday Sentiment Survey found that metro region shoppers planned to spend $850 per household this holiday season. That’s the second-highest amount since the survey began 14 years ago. It’s up $223 or 33 percent from the survey’s recession-era low point in 2009.

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