Online Shoppers Have Fewer Last Minutes

After several years of enviable sales growth, the online retail sector is poised to wrap up the holiday season with spending essentially flat from last year.

According to the latest analysis from online metrics firm comScore, e-commerce spending for the first 49 days of the holiday season was down 1 percent from the same period in 2007.

Shoppers are continuing to spend late in the season this year, but the last-minute surge seems unlikely to push the overall holiday revenues ahead of last year. comScore, which is projecting 2008 holiday sales roughly equal to 2007 totals, notes that retailers are struggling with more than just a down economy this season. Year-to-year holiday-sales comparisons suffer from a quirk of the calendar, thanks to the heavy shopping period from Thanksgiving to Christmas coming in five days shorter this year compared to last year.

“With five fewer days of holiday shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, there is increasing pressure on consumers to make their holiday purchases in time for Christmas,” comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni said in a statement. “As a result, we’ve seen online shoppers continue to spend heavily even later into the season, with the most recent week including four of the top ten spending days of the season.”

“Despite this positive development, the combination of the compressed holiday schedule and the challenging economic situation faced by many consumers means that retailers have their work cut out for them this season,” Fulgoni added.

The flat growth that comScore is projecting this year compares with a 19 percent increase in online spending last holiday season from the previous year. The 2006 holiday season saw online spending up 26 percent from the previous year.

Within its generally bleak market snapshot, comScore finds a few bright spots. Retailers have seen average daily spending of $643 million from Thanksgiving through Dec. 19, a 5 percent increase over last year.

The past week was especially strong, accounting for four of the top 10 spending days this season.

But with most retailers’ offers of free shipping in time Christmas having expired, the heaviest online shopping days have likely come and gone.

Dec. 9, a Tuesday, was the strongest day of the season, with online retailers posting revenues of $887 million. Last Monday, Dec. 15, checked in at No. 2, with $857 million in sales. Cyber Monday, the first Monday after Thanksgiving often cited as the kickoff to the online holiday shopping season, was the third-heaviest day for e-tailers with sales of $846 million, a healthy 15 percent increase of the same day in 2007.

By category, the biggest gainers in December over last year were sports and fitness, books and magazines, and video games, consoles and accessories.

In the same period, music, movies and videos were the biggest loser, with December sales dropping 24 percent from last year.

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