March 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

The web took a larger share of retail sales as e-commerce picked up in the 4th quarter

Representing a shift to online from offline buying, online retailers took market share from offline retailers in the fourth quarter of last year, as online retail sales grew 14.4% on an adjusted basis over Q4 of 2008, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports.

In a down year for the U.S. economy, online retailers took market share from offline retailers, according to the Census Bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Online retail sales in the fourth quarter grew 14.4% on an adjusted basis over the fourth quarter of 2008, reaching $35.9 billion, the Department of Commerce reported. For the year, e-commerce sales increased 2.0% to $134.9 billion.

While this was far from the double-digit growth that online retailers have come to expect, it represented a major shift from offline to online buying.

Total retail sales in the fourth quarter rose just 2.1% to $942.4 billion, while total retail sales for the year declined 7%, the Commerce Department says. The shift to online accelerated in the fourth quarter: The difference in growth between online and offline was 12.3 percentage points for the fourth quarter and 9 percentage points for the year.

By the Commerce Department estimates, e-commerce sales in Q4 accounted for 3.8% of total sales, up from 3.4% in the fourth quarter of 2008. The proportion of online sales is higher than that as the Commerce Department bases its calculation on total retail sales that include sales of many items rarely purchased online, such as gasoline, restaurant meals and automobiles.

Web measurement firm comScore Inc., which excludes gasoline, automobile and restaurant sales, says the web accounted for 7.7% of retail spending in Q4, up from 6.9% in the third quarter and slightly more than 7.6% in the fourth quarter of 2008.

The Commerce Department’s finding of sharp Q4 e-commerce sales growth is in line with the estimate of 15.5% growth in e-retail sales from Nov. 1-Dec. 24 from MasterCard Inc.’s SpendingPulse report. But it contrasts with comScore’s estimate of only 3% Q4 growth in online retail sales. Until now, the comScore numbers and Commerce Department numbers were closely aligned.

kurt@verticalwebmedia.com

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