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Holiday E-Commerce Holds Strong Through Home Stretch

While e-commerce may not be growing at the same clip as in years past, online retailers have nonetheless seen a generally healthy holiday season, according to the latest analysis from online metrics firm comScore.

With Christmas over and only a few days as yet unreported before the holiday season officially draws to a close, online retail spending increased 19 percent in the period from Nov. 1 through Dec. 27, compared with the holiday season last year. That's down from a 26 percent increase last holiday season over 2005.

Nevertheless, comScore analysts have concluded that the e-commerce sector held reasonably strong this year considering the economic factors that have been constricting consumer spending -- such as rising gas prices, declining home values and an uncertain stock market.

After a slow start to the holiday season due in part to warm weather in the first half of November, e-commerce bounced back after Thanksgiving. Despite the early troubles many sites had handling the first dramatic spikes in volume this season, the period from the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday) through Christmas saw e-commerce spending increase 21 percent over last year.

The performance had been bolstered by several strong individual days and a pronounced late-season push by procrastinating shoppers -- and the late expiration dates for many retailers' free, guaranteed pre-Christmas delivery offers.

Last-minute shoppers turned out in force over the five days ending Dec. 21, a period that saw non-travel e-commerce spending jump 25 percent compared with last year.

That momentum carried into the day after Christmas, when online spending hit $545 million, more than twice the total for the same day last year.

With the season all but over, comScore analysts said that the single strongest day for online retailers will remain Monday, Dec. 10, or "Green Monday," to invoke the term eBay has given the second Monday in December. That day has seen shoppers increasingly taking to the Web in full force.

On the most recent Green Monday, e-commerce sales jumped 33 percent over the same day last year, setting a single-day record of $881 million.

Tuesday, Dec. 11 stands as the second-biggest day on record, with sales of $819 million.

In total, consumers have spent almost $28 billion online this holiday season, translating into the 19 percent growth rate that's just a percentage point below the projection that comScore made going into the season.

That compares with the 4 percent growth estimate for traditional retailers offered by the National Retail Foundation at the season's outset. The retail trade association will release its final holiday sales figures in mid-January.

There is no industry consensus about how to interpret this season in e-commerce. Some seem inclined to see the growth rate decline from the 25 percent to 30 percent range as a disappointment and an ominous portent of further woes.

To others, it signals another year of remarkable growth, made all the more significant given the contracting economy. After all, even though e-commerce still accounts for a fraction of all retail spending, the sector is maturing -- and maturation means that growth rates can be expected to taper off some, particularly in times of economic uncertainty.

Whether bullish or bearish, few would dispute comScore's conclusion that no matter what happens in the overall economy, online retailers will continue to enjoy growth rates that their brick-and-mortar counterparts are unlikely to see again.