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A Holiday Retail Lesson for Small Business: Be More Like Amazon

Here are three things we just learned about Christmas commerce in 2013:

1. Lots of shoppers skipped the mall, even as retailers kept slashing prices. Store traffic in the week leading up to Dec. 22 sank 22 percent, with sales growing at the smallest rate since 2009, ShopperTrak reports.

2. Consumers instead spent their dollars online. Amazon (AMZN) on Thursday announced that 1 million people signed up last week alone for its Prime membership program, paying $79 per year for two-day shipping on most purchases.

3. Many packages of items ordered through the Prime program didn’t make it to their destinations on time. As of Thursday, UPS (UPS) and FedEx (FDX) were still scrambling to deliver gifts that were expected by Dec. 24. Amazon is offering affected customers $20 gift cards and refunds for the late deliveries.

A late Thanksgiving that compressed the Christmas shopping season may have steered more buyers online. Ice storms that affected parts of the U.S. and Canada probably created more of a burden for shippers that were already facing a very hectic period.

One lesson for any business selling to U.S. consumers seems clear. We want to quickly grab our iPads, (AAPL) smartphones, and laptops, pick out gifts for our loved ones, and have everything in hand a couple of days later. If your business can’t deliver on that kind of demand—because your website is pokey, or it takes two days just for an order to leave your warehouse, or because your merchandise is available only in your store and no place else—you’ve already lost sales to a company that can.

Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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