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Cyber Monday sets records, boosted by purchasing on phones

Monday became the biggest e-commerce sales day in US history, with purchasing reaching as high as $12 million a minute.

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Amazon's corporate headquarters in Seattle, where workers were busy managing the biggest e-commerce site in the world, on the busiest online shopping day of the year.

James Martin/CNET

Buying stuff using a phone keeps growing in popularity, with this holiday season showing just how big those little screens have become for retailers.

On Cyber Monday, purchases via phones surged to $3.1 billion, helping make it the biggest online sales day in US history, reaching $9.4 billion, according to Adobe. That's up from $7.9 billion last year. Purchasing peaked in the evening, with shoppers spending an average of $12 million a minute from 8 to 9 p.m. PT. 

For the broader holiday season, phones are expected to account for 36% of total e-commerce sales, up from 30% last year, driving nearly half of the online sales growth this holiday and making the devices the "breakout star" of the season, said Adobe spokesman Kevin Fu. 

Purchases using desktops remain the big leader in online buying, though mobile purchasing has been taking up a bigger chunk of sales over the past few years.

"When they write the history about this thing, 2019 will be the year of mobile," said Jon Reily, head of global commerce strategy at consultancy Publicis Sapient. He added that as phone-focused Generation Z shoppers grow up in the coming years, they're likely to push mobile purchasing even higher.

The fact that Cyber Monday reached a new high mark is no surprise. It's consistently the biggest online sales day of each year and breaks its own record every year. Adobe even predicted the $9.4 billion figure weeks ago.

But the robust growth points to a positive holiday sales season for retail and the economy overall, which is benefiting from low unemployment and rising wages. It also highlights the years-long trend of consumers moving more of their shopping online and away from physical stores. Those stores should still take up the lion's share of total holiday sales, but this online shift is expected to be a big benefit especially for Amazon, by far the largest online seller in the country.

"We're seeing a very strong digital holiday thus far. It was in large part because of the demand retailers were trying to drum up since early November," said Rob Garf, Salesforce vice president of retail strategy and insights. That early work was necessary because there are six fewer days between Cyber Monday and Christmas than last year.

Amazon sales and protests

Amazon on Tuesday said Cyber Monday was again its biggest sales day ever by the number of items ordered worldwide. It said the most popular items purchased were the Echo Dot and Fire TV Stick 4K with Alexa Voice Remote. As is typical for Amazon, the company didn't offer specific sales figures.

As has become a common practice for Amazon's biggest sale days, protesters marched in Manhattan against the company on Monday afternoon, this time outside Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' penthouse. They wanted to highlight on-the-job injuries at Amazon warehouses and the company's work with immigration authorities and hundreds of local police departments. Another Monday protest was held outside Amazon's San Bernardino, California, distribution center. These protests followed a similar demonstration outside Amazon's Staten Island warehouse last week.

Adobe reaffirmed its expectation that total holiday sales for US e-commerce in November and December will hit $143.7 billion, up 14.1% from last year. That figure was helped along by strong sales so far on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, with consumers spending more not only using their phones but also choosing the option to buy online and then pick up in store.

Garf said retailers this year are also finding more ways to entice customers than just offering discounts, which has forced a race to the bottom for years. He said merchants are now rolling out flash sales, celebrity tie-ins and limited-edition products to try getting folks to buy.

Comparatively, the National Retail Federation has expected overall holiday spending in the US, which includes both online and stores, to grow between 3.8% and 4.2%, to a total of between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. The retail trade group said Tuesday that shoppers spent an average of 16% more from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday from the year before, with 124 million people shopping in stores and 142 million shopping online.

For later in the season, when shipping cutoff times become a bigger factor, Garf said physical stores will get a lot more attention from customers, as they take advantage of picking up their items in stores right up until Christmas Day.

Going beyond the holiday season, Reily expects retail sales to remain solid as long as the economy keeps chugging along.

"If consumer confidence stays where it is and wages stay up, then things will continue where they are," he said. "People are still buying things and the economy is running strong."

Originally published Dec. 2.
Updates, Dec. 2: Adds more physical store figures; Dec. 3: Includes final Adobe sales figures and additional details.