It’s no secret that shopping habits are changing, but 2013’s peak period proved to be very different. Rebecca Thomson looks at the purchasing patterns that emerged over Christmas.

Data on how and when consumers shopped online over Christmas 2013 has recently started to filter through, and online shopping trends took a big step from Christmas 2012.

For a start, people bought much more online than they did a year ago. Deloitte, which interviewed 3,000 consumers on their shopping habits, said 44% of shoppers bought more online this Christmas than a year ago – with a significant 6% of shoppers buying online on Christmas Day.

“We were surprised by how much momentum and growth there still is in online shopping,” said Ben Perkins, head of consumer business research at Deloitte.

So volumes rose over the period, but when did shoppers actually do their shopping?

Overall, the peak period got longer – delivery firm MetaPack collected data on purchasing volumes between the end of November and the middle of January, because volumes were found to increase significantly at either end of the peak time.

MetaPack CIO Richard Orme said volumes of parcels delivered over Christmas using the MetaPack network rose about 45% if looking at December in isolation – however, if November and January are taken into account, volumes rose 50%.

Orme said: “We consider peak now to run through to the middle of January. Historically, it wouldn’t have run past December, but this year we decided to extend the period we were looking at.”

He added: “The rise towards the back end of November was greater than the overall lift through the whole of peak.”

The weekly patterns of purchasing were different this year, as well. In previous years, the three Mondays in December represented big spikes in volume, with the number of online orders tailing off during the rest of the week. This year, however, demand was more spread out over December.

“We saw that a bit this year,” Orme said. “But volumes remained consistently high. Mondays were high but other days were also strong. Many retailers were working pretty much flat out in terms of capacity.”

The reasons behind this apparent flattening of the demand arc are myriad. Orme said: “It indicates increased trust from the consumer side in terms of retailer’s ability to deliver,” meaning shoppers are happy to order throughout the peak period because they are confident parcels will arrive on time. In addition, carrier companies such as DHL clearly communicated their capacity to retailers early on, he added. “Carriers have put huge investment in this year and worked with retailers throughout. This year we didn’t see any significant problems throughout the carrier network.”

Much of 2013’s increase actually came after Christmas, with the January sales making a big impact online this year. Orme said: “If you look at the two weeks after Christmas, the uplift there was bigger than we have ever seen. In some cases it was almost double last year. A lot of January sales started online on Christmas Day.”

Plus, of course, consumer habits continue to change. More shoppers were happier to buy and return online this year, especially because more are using mobile devices.

“The majority of traffic to tracking services are from mobile devices,” Orme says. “You can buy almost anywhere and this has increased the number of opportunities to buy online.”

Online trends over Christmas 2014 are likely to continue in the same direction. Orme says more carriers will offer services such as Sunday delivery, spreading demand out across the week. “The idea that we have huge peaks on a Monday and the network doing nothing on a Sunday is not sustainable.”

The pressure to innovate is coming from shoppers as well – Deloitte found that 16% of consumers chose a specific retailer because of the delivery services they offered.

Multichannel delivery

One other factor changing the timing of demand is the growth of multichannel fulfilment. Deloitte’s research revealed that a fifth of shoppers used click and collect this Christmas, compared to just one in ten a couple of months earlier in September. “Over the course of a few months you are seeing quite an acceleration,” Perkins says.

Shoppers are flocking to convenient services, Toby Paxton, supply chain and fulfilment expert at Deloitte, adds. “We are seeing lots of trends and innovation around fulfilment, from same day delivery to later cut off points.” This is driven by consumer demand for new options. “From the consumer perspective it’s all about convenience,” Paxton says. “They want fulfilment solutions that interface with their busy lives.”

He adds services will continue to evolve. “New propositions such as click and collect are largely bolt-ons to existing operations.”

The challenge, he adds, will be balancing the need for immediate action with longer term innovation. In the short term, retailers need to focus on what needs to be done in time for next Christmas that will enable them to meet expectations. In the longer term, they need to be thinking more creatively.

“They need to evolve their proposition. Balancing that transition is many retailers’ real challenge.”

As the rise of click and collect would suggest, shoppers are increasingly keen on using digital technology and or technology enabled services in store.

Perkins says: “There’s an interesting shift between online and store – we found 36% said digital technology in store can improve the shopping experience. The online and offline worlds are coming increasingly closer together.”

All this change means the supply chain is enjoying a newly prominent role. Paxton says: “Areas such as supply chain are being seen in a different light to the way it has been in the past. It has always been important, but this is now a critical aspect of how a retailer runs its business.”

Analysis: Why online buying peaks were so different over Christmas 2013