December 27, 2006 9:37 AM PST

Net sales show big holiday gains

Forget elves and reindeer. Santa's best helper this year was the Internet, at least if online holiday sales figures are any indication.

The latest figures from ComScore Networks forecast that online spending in November and December will have reached an estimated $24.6 billion, which would surpass analyst estimates and mark a 25 percent increase from the corresponding period last year. Last year's online spending forecast for the same period totaled about $17 billion, an increase of about 24 percent from 2004.

"Not only are the numbers very healthy, consumers are shopping later than ever before," said ComScore analyst Michael Rubin.

Rubin noted that online sales figures were about 35 percent higher this year for the weekend before Christmas than they were last year, something he attributes to both retailers' extended shipping guarantees and consumers' willingness to pay more for expedited shipping.

This season's online retail growth eclipses growth forecasted for overall retail sales. Sales from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve grew about 3 percent, well behind last year's 5.2 percent growth rate, according to SpendingPulse, the retail data service provider for MasterCard Advisors. That figure is adjusted for an extra sales day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The National Retail Federation had predicted total holiday retail sales to increase 5 percent over sales last year.

In a separate analysis, ShopperTrak RCT reported that overall retail sales for the week ending December 23 increased a steady 5.2 percent over the same period in 2005 while total U.S. foot traffic fell slightly--1.3 percent--during the same period.

Pricey items find buyers
Online growth was driven primarily by increases in big-ticket categories such as jewelry and watches (up 66 percent), video game consoles (up 54 percent) and consumer electronics (up 33 percent), as well as in popular gift categories such as video games (up 65 percent), ComScore found.

The increase in online sales might also have something to do with merchants who have been tweaking their marketing efforts in the final weeks of the season to maximize sales, according to results of the 2006 eHoliday Mood Study, conducted by BizRate Research for Shopzilla and Shop.org.

The eHoliday Mood study also found that shoppers are having a positive online buying experience this holiday season. More than two-thirds of those surveyed said they were "very satisfied" with their online buying experience, and almost all were at least somewhat satisfied.

Updated sales figures, including more hard data for the days leading right up to Christmas, are still trickling in. But Amazon.com was quick to announce Tuesday that 2006 marked its best season ever, with its busiest day on December 11, when consumers ordered more than 4 million items.

Nielsen/NetRatings, in its annual Holiday eShopping index of 120 retailers, similarly noted December 11 as one of its retailers for biggest days for traffic. The others big days were November 29 and December 12 and 14.

Nielsen/NetRatings also noted that the number of visits to online-only retailers this season has been 54 percent greater than visits to those with both online and brick-and-mortar offerings. Still, visits to those with both offerings have increased 21 percent year over year, while visits to online-only retailers have increased 12 percent, Nielsen/Net Ratings said.

Meanwhile, ShopperTrack RCT has named December 23 this year's "Super Saturday," which accounted for sales totaling $8.72 billion and came in just behind Black Friday's $8.96 billion.

As for the hot items this season, Amazon said the top-selling video consoles were Nintendo DS Lite, PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360. Top-selling games were New Super Mario Bros., Brain Age and Madden Football. And top-selling consumer electronics were Apple Computer's iPods, Canon PowerShot Digital Elph cameras, Garmin GPS systems, Apple MacBooks, Sony VAIO notebooks, and Logitech, Plantronics and Motorola Bluetooth headsets, Amazon said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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