E-Commerce Survives an Enigmatic September

Despite a national tragedy and an economy in turmoil, the September e-commerce numbers aren’t quite as bad as some may have feared. According to the eCommercePulse study from Nielsen//NetRatings and Harris Interactive, e-commerce spending jumped 54 percent to $4.7 billion in September 2001 when compared to one year earlier.

The study, which collects data from an online survey of 36,000 Web users, also found that the number of online buyers hit a new all-time high in September 2001, with 38.6 million people purchasing online. More importantly, however, than comparing the numbers of September 2001 to numbers from one year ago is how the numbers stack up with where e-commerce stood before Sept. 11. In August 2001, the eCommercePulse study found nearly $5.6 billion in online spending, with 37.1 million online shoppers. From a spending perspective, September was the worst e-commerce month since April 2001, when nearly $4.5 million was spent online.

“An unprecedented number of people embraced e-commerce last month, exceeding even the huge number of buyers during the December holiday,” said Sean Kaldor, vice president of analytical services at NetRatings. “Despite recent national events, the number of online buyers actually grew 4 percent from August.”

As hard as it may seem to believe, the eCommercePulse study found that the travel sector maintained the top spot as the biggest revenue maker for September, bringing in more than $1.1 billion. The travel category has grown 44 percent since last year, but revenues decreased 23 percent from August to September due to travel concerns and restrictions following the Sept. 11 attack.

Top Online Spending Categories, Sept. 2001
Rank Category Dollars Spent
Sept. 2000 Sept. 2001
1. Travel Services $795 $1,148 44%
2. Clothing/Apparel $276 $494 79%
3. Auctions $173 $407 135%
4. Computer Hardware $226 $380 68%
5. Books $121 $300 148%
Source: Nielsen//NetRatings & Harris Interactive

“Travel accounts for nearly a quarter of all online spending, so a downturn in this critical category dampens the entire e-commerce sector,” Kaldor said. “But as a partial counterbalance, several categories did extremely well. For example, books grew 148 percent to $300 million, setting a new record for the category during a non-holiday month.”

Data collected by comScore Networks found a severe initial decline in e-commerce activity following the Sept. 11 attack, but noted that a gradual improvement in total online sales followed. From Sept. 11 to Sept. 16, total consumer e-commerce spending fell 25 percent compared to levels seen prior to the attacks. These initial declines were sustained through the following week, and were driven primarily by a sharp drop of more than 40 percent in online purchasing of travel services. Online purchasing of non-travel goods and services declined by 25 percent during the week of the attacks, before eventually recovering to levels slightly below pre-attack periods.

The Online Retail Index from Forrester Research also tracked a decrease in total U.S. online spending in September, which it says decreased slightly from $4.0 billion in August to $3.97 billion in September. Forrester also tracked an increase in the number of online shoppers, with 15.2 million households shopping online in September compared to 14.8 million in August.

Forrester also released some good news for the longer-range e-commerce outlook when it announced that after re-visiting its holiday season e-commerce projection in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack, it would keep the projection at $11 billion. That would be a 10 percent increase over spending during the 2000 holiday season, according to Forrester.

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