Santa Claus delivered gifts early this year to online retailers, as deal-conscious shoppers flocked to Web retailers in record numbers. "We're seeing a more positive holiday shopping season than retail stores in general," says Lori Iventosch-James, director of E-commerce research for Harris Interactive. American consumers spent nearly $6.2 billion online in November, up 22% from $5.1 billion spent in the same period last year, according to a report from Harris Interactive, Goldman Sachs, and Nielsen/NetRatings. Iventosch-James expects December sales to be strong, too, though perhaps a bit softer than November in year-over-year comparisons.
The surge is the result of maturing technology and increased consumer comfort, Iventosch-James says. "We're not seeing a lot of huge growth in terms of Internet penetration," she says. "It's not that so many more people are coming online, it's that it's become so much easier and secure to shop online, and retailers have become so much more proficient at it."
Free shipping offers and the ease of online comparison shopping also are contributing. According to BizRate.com, a site for online comparison shopping, 49% of all purchases made during the Thanksgiving weekend were influenced by free shipping, up from 38% last year. And 54% of all online shoppers are more focused on finding deals, visiting four sites on average before making a purchase.
Mary Brett Whitfield, a senior VP with market-research firm Retail Forward, initially forecast online retail growth of 15% in the fourth quarter over the previous year but now thinks the number may hit the low 20s. Early indications support that view. ComScore Networks, an Internet measurement company, estimates record online consumer sales of $2.2 billion for the week ending Dec. 13.