October 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

Holiday spending: up and online

Market researchers` predict holiday shoppers will be spending more dollars this season, and they`ll be spending more of them online.

While the season’s hottest toy may change from year to year, market researchers’ early predictions for consumers’ holiday spending this year suggest that merchants can count on at least two trends continuing, and in the same direction: up. The forecast? Holiday shoppers will be spending more dollars this season, and they’ll be spending more of them online.

Online holiday sales will reach $18.35 billion this year, a 22% increase over last year’s holiday spending online, according to BizRate.com Inc. That prediction is not far different from the forecast of research firm eMarketer Inc., which predicts consumers will spend $17.7 7 billion in this year’s fourth quarter, up 29.1% from $13.77 billion last year. Though online sales account for a mere fraction of that total, that percentage is on the rise as well. According to eMarketer, as of this year’s second quarter, online sales were 1.5% of all retail sales, an increase from 1.2% a year earlier.

Helping to drive those increases is consumers’ quest to make shopping easy. “Consumers have spoken out loud and clear in this year’s survey as to how they define today’s shopping experience,” says Tara Weiner, managing partner of the consumer business practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP. “They’re telling us their holiday spending decisions will be influenced by convenience and value and not just the lowest price.” Deloitte’s annual holiday spending survey found that the web is the second most popular shopping destination among consumers after discount department stores, with 56% of those surveyed saying they plan to shop the Internet this season, spending on average 21% of their holiday budgets online.

Average spend: $637

Survey results from market researchers The NPD Group show that 81% of consumers plan to spend the same amount as or more than they did last year, with 68% saying they’d spend the same and 13% planning to spend more. The percentage of those surveyed planning to shop online rose by one percentage point to 41% this year. Overall, the average shopper planed to spend $637 this season.

A consumer survey from Brand Keys pegs average holiday spending per consumer at $710. Brand Keys also says 50% of consumers surveyed plan to do some of their holiday shopping online, up from 42.5% last year. Furthermore, the number of consumers shopping online will increase by 15% over last year, while the amount they will spend online will increase by 62%, indicating that shoppers are doing more of their holiday spending online, according to Brand Keys’ forecast.

ComScore Networks Inc. at press time had yet to issue its holiday forecast, but notes that year to date activity supports the upward trend. Through mid-September, non-travel online sales have totaled $32.8 billion, up 18% from year-ago levels. While online sales dipped in April and May, comScore notes “a significant rebound heading into the all-important holiday season.”

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