EBay Wants to Make Mobile Wednesday a Thing. Good Luck With That

  • Company hopes Thanksgiving travelers will shop from the car
  • That’s a long shot when even Black Friday is losing momentum

QuickTake: Online Versus In-Store Shopping

A decade ago, savvy marketing people dubbed the first workday after Thanksgiving Cyber Monday. E-tailers bombarded consumers with discounts, and it became the biggest online sales event of the year.

Now EBay Inc., struggling to turn itself around and catch up with dominant Amazon.com Inc., has invented a new day: Mobile Wednesday.

The idea is to persuade Americans en route to Thanksgiving dinner to buy lots of stuff while on the road. (Not the driver of course, but whoever is riding shotgun.) EBay plans to unleash a blizzard of discounts on Wednesday, including Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab A 8.0 Wi-Fi tablet with 16 GB of storage for $99 and Klipsch X11 noise isolation headphones for $79.99.

“Some of our best growth has been on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving,” says Hal Lawton, EBay’s senior vice president of North America. “We want to embrace that trend and generate some buzz. If people are going to be on mobile that day, what can we do to win that dollar. We want to be there for them to shop while they’re traveling.”

EBay and its rivals need to jolt sales because Americans have been so busy obsessing about the presidential election they’ve neglected their shopping. So far this is the slowest November for online sales since Adobe began collecting data in 2012. Before the election, the firm projected web sales of $91.6 billion in November and December, up 11 percent from a year ago. Last week, Adobe knocked its projection down to single-digit growth and compared post-election U.S. spending patterns with the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

EBay’s bet on mobile shopping is understandable. After a slow start, Americans are increasingly using their phones to buy everything from furniture to food. In part, that’s because retailers have made their mobile websites easier and faster to use. Shopping on mobile devices -- including tablets -- is growing at a much faster pace than desktop computers and in stores overall. Mobile spending will reach $123 billion this year, up 39 percent from a year ago, according to the research firm eMarketer.

Plus, almost 49 million Americans are expected to hit the road this year for Thanksgiving, the most since 2007, according to AAA. Wednesday is typically the busiest of the five-day travel period.

But while Amazon and Alibaba have both successfully manufactured big sales occasions, respectively with Prime Day and Singles Day, it’s getting harder to make one event stand out during the U.S. shopping season. Even hallowed Black Friday has lost luster in the past couple of years. Same goes for Cyber Monday; though expected to be the biggest online shopping day of the year, it’s losing momentum. Both days are suffering because Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Amazon and many others are dangling deals earlier and earlier in November.

Besides, the biggest retailers are open on Thanksgiving (despite criticism for forcing workers to miss their turkey dinners). As a result, many of the travelers EBay is targeting on Mobile Wednesday may prefer to wait and wander around a mall after eating. (It’s also a good way to avoid arguing politics with ornery Uncle Bob.)

“We’ve seen Amazon create Prime Day out of thin air and turn it into a huge shopping day,” says Wedbush Securities Inc. analyst Gil Luria. “EBay has the muscle to do something like that, but they’d have to spend a lot of money promoting it. If it’s not visible two days in advance, I’m not sure there’s a lot of potential for Mobile Wednesday.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.