A hundred years from now, when historians write the definitive book on the rise of ecommerce, it’s unlikely they’ll give 2022 more than a passing mention.
It was that kind of year. Neither earth-shattering nor dismal. Neither ground-breaking nor a return to the norm.
We got the first indications of this in January. The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t over, but the retail industry was pretty eager to act as if it was. The National Retail Federation planned a return to the real world for its Big Show. But just days before attendees were due to arrive, coronavirus cases spiked in New York and the keynote speaker — Honest Co. founder, actor and celebrity Jessica Alba canceled. Still, the show must go on, as actors say. The Big Show did come to New York. But not many attendees did.
There was another indication back in January that 2022 would be less than remarkable. The big business story in retail that month was that Kim Kardashian’s underwear label Skims had doubled its valuation to $3.2 billion in nine months. That suggested innovation in 2022 would involve attaching a celebrity’s name to a version of an actual innovation from two decades earlier.
By February, there was a throw-the-spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks air about the entire retail world. Target Corp. offered Starbucks beverages as part of its curbside pickup. Peloton, Home Depot, Wish.com and Shipt all decided to try new CEOs, and Amazon laborers — who hadn’t had much luck working with the giants of organized labor — decided to organize themselves.
Then, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.
In the following weeks, the retail world behaved admirably. Toy companies became symbols of the resistance, while major companies around the globe cut ties to the Russian economy. In the meantime, there were other ominous signs for ecommerce. A global supply chain crisis was poised to worsen. And inflation for the year ending March 2022 hit 8.5% — the largest 12-month increase since 1981.
By April, the bad news had everyone in ecommerce worried that things were falling apart. Everyone seemed to be losing money and/or going deeper into debt. Buy-now-pay-later options grew popular with shoppers and retailers. Amazon.com Inc., No. 1 in Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000, posted a $3.8 billion loss. Bed Bath & Beyond said its net sales fell 22%. Young adults borrowed money and engaged in crypto speculation, and Etsy sellers went on strike.
April showers are supposed to give way to May flowers. But in 2022 … not so much. The bad news continued. Surplus inventory levels soared. Ecommerce growth continued to slow. Wayfair Inc., No. 7 in Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000, announced a hiring freeze. EBay’s sales fell and Target’s earnings plummeted. In the meantime, the spaghetti-against-the wall craze continued as Amazon started subleasing warehouse space while opening a clothing store, just as Walmart announced plans for delivery by drone.
In June, things grew darker. Bed Bath & Beyond’s CEO stepped down as sales fell further. So too did the CEO of The RealReal, No. 40 in the ranking of Digital Commerce 360 Top 100 Online Marketplaces. Meanwhile, Apple and PayPal both made it easier for shoppers to go deeper in debt.
July was supposed to be a time of great excitement in ecommerce, as Amazon held its Prime Day sale. But shoppers were underwhelmed. As if in response to the disappointment, Amazon announced a drop in ecommerce sales (albeit for the quarter before Prime Day), Shopify slashed its workforce, and soaring inflation pushed consumers to amass BNPL debt to pay for groceries.
In August, things grew both darker and brighter. Best Buy, No. 6 in the 2022 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, said U.S. online sales dropped 14.7%, while Macy’s said its Q2 online sales fell 5% and multiple retailers struggled to unload excess inventory. By contrast, Walmart said its online sales rose 12% in the second quarter, albeit largely because of inflation. Overall ecommerce numbers grew, but at a pace that was well below what the industry had grown accustomed to. U.S. ecommerce spending in Q2 marked its fourth straight quarter of single-digit growth following the 45%-50% jumps during the first year of the pandemic, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce figures.
In September, things turned macabre. Bed Bath & Beyond’s chief financial officer died by suicide. Shortly before that, the world learned that Chewy founder and activist investor Ryan Cohen — who had driven Bed Bath & Beyond shares higher during the meme stock craze — had sold his entire stake in the retailer. Shares fell 40% in the wake of Cohen’s action. Unsurprisingly, Bed Bath & Beyond soon announced it had another dismal quarter.
By now, the pattern was clear. Times are tough; pasta must be thrown. So Amazon announced it would have another Prime Day sale. Meanwhile, Kanye West severed ties with the Gap, suggesting that in 2022 true innovation might mean removing a celebrity’s name from someone else’s innovation.
In October, the ecommerce world watched as that second Prime Day — dubbed the Amazon Prime Early Access sale, in a sign that in 2022 true innovation might mean changing the name of an earlier innovation — fizzled.
Meanwhile, in a particularly disturbing development, online prices for food hit a new record high. Then, in a move that no one thinks would help those prices fall, The Kroger Co. said it had agreed to buy rival Albertsons Cos. Inc. for $24.6 billion.
As October ended, Digital Commerce 360 warned that “online retailers again will have a tough go of it this season, trying to convince shoppers who are contending with inflation and recession fears not to skimp on their gift lists.”
November, of course, is when the hopes and fears of all of ecommerce converge in the Cyber 5 period. Early in the month, there were some pieces of bad news that suggested Cyber 5 results might prove disappointing. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. decided not to disclose full sales results for its signature Singles’ Day shopping festival for the first time, after forecasts that the figure may suffer a decline unprecedented in the event’s 14-year history. Alibaba owns and operates Taobao and Tmall, which hold the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the ranking for Digital Commerce 360 Online Marketplaces. And Singles’ Day is the world’s largest shopping festival.
Meanwhile, Amazon said it planned to cut about 10,000 jobs — the largest ever headcount reduction at the ecommerce giant as it braces for slower growth and a possible recession.
Yet December — like 2022 itself — saw the release of news that was both good and bad. Cyber 5 results, the effects of inflation, struggles over supply chain and inventory levels, all proved to be neither earth-shattering nor dismal. Neither ground-breaking nor a return to the norm.
Early in December, the industry learned that web sales grew 4% to reach $35.27 billion in the Cyber 5, or the five-day period of Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, according to Adobe Analytics. Amazon and Walmart were the big winners. That news came just days after the U.S. Commerce Department said the value of overall retail purchases dropped 0.6% in November — the largest decline in 11 months.
Also in December came the piece of news that most perfectly summed up the entirety of 2022 in retail. Celebrity Justin Bieber blasted H&M for what he called the “trash” of the all-new Justin Bieber-themed merchandise sold by H&M, suggesting that the biggest innovation of 2022 involved attaching a celebrity’s name to innovations they don’t like.
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