December 20, 2010, 11:36 AM

A sales season to cheer about

Double-digit holiday season sales growth for e-commerce now appears assured.

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Consumers have spent $27.46 billion since Nov. 1, representing a 12% increase in online holiday sales from the same period last year, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc. Sales for the week of Dec. 10-17 alone topped $5.15 billion, making it the strongest online sales week ever.

 “Merchants are ecstatic this season. The holiday is exceeding their expectations,” says Ken Burke, founder and chairman of e-commerce service provider MarketLive Inc. His firm’s e-retailer clients’ sales were up 15.3% through Dec. 13, he says.

The season’s strong sales numbers also caused some industry analysts to revise their pre-season estimates for online sales growth. Jeffrey Grau of eMarketer, who predicted 14% growth for the holiday season in mid-November, raised his estimate two percentage points to 16% in mid-December. “The strength of online holiday sales—and total retail sales for that matter—to date has caught me and other analysts by surprise,” he says.

Also in mid-December, the National Retail Federation revised its forecast for November and December total retail sales, online and offline, to 3.3% from its previous estimate of 2.3%.  Meanwhile, MasterCard Advisors, the consulting arm of the payment card network, today said that e-commerce sales since Oct. 31 have increased 13.5% compared with the same period last year.

E-commerce executives say sales this season are coming in ahead of expectations. Sales were up 33% from Thanksgiving through Dec. 19 at eBags.com, No. 117 on Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide, says Peter Cobb, senior vice president and co-founder . December sales were tracking up 15% through Dec. 17 at Wine.com, No. 229, says president Rich Bergsund.

The holiday sales season kicked off with a bang over the Thanksgiving weekend for DrsFosterandSmith.com, No. 105, says Gordon Magee, the pet goods e-retailer’s Internet marketing and media manager. The Monday after Thanksgiving was the firm’s largest sales day ever. “We are riding a wave of optimism and encouragement right now about where our sales levels have been over the holidays and where we project them to be following the holidays,” he says.

The Thanksgiving week sales blast—U.S. e-retailers collected an estimated $4.53 billion in sales from Monday, Nov. 22 to Monday, Nov. 29, according to comScore data—did prompt sales to slow during the following weeks.

For example, from Thanksgiving through Monday, sales growth among ChannelAdvisor Corp. e-retail clients was 26%, says CEO Scot Wingo. During the first week of December sales were still up year over year but by far less, 8.8% ahead of the same week in 2009. Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research says the early-season surge reflected consumers’ pent-up demand and renewed confidence in the economy. “November sales were quite good and above our expectations. Since then we’ve seen a slowdown, but the strong opening to the season fits with the sense that there has been pent-up demand among consumers,” he says.

Magee says DrsFosterandSmith saw the same sales curve in the weeks following Thanksgiving. “Predictably, you can’t maintain that level of sales since it was a record day for us. Sales have tapered off from that level but we are very encouraged by what we are seeing this season,” he says.

Strong early sales didn’t make e-retailers complacent about trying to get more sales throughout the season. Offers.com, an online coupon site, featured more e-retailer coupons and promotions this year, but founder and CEO Steve Schaffer says e-retailers designed offers more strategically. “E-retailers put more thought into it. They didn’t focus on door busters or loss leaders but more on categories and brands people want for gift giving,” he says.

Discounts also were less drastic this year as the season went on, experts say. “The breadth and size of the discounts are not anywhere near where we saw them in 2007 or 2008,” Deloitte’s Steidtmann says.

After a big early start to the season, e-retailers this year had less inventory they needed to sell before Christmas and so were less compelled to offer deep cuts, Burke says. “I don’t see our merchants over-discounting,” he says.

E-retailers are pushing shipping deadlines to the max this year to capture every last sale. Consumers can place orders through 1 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 23 at Wine.com and still have bottles under the tree on Christmas Eve. NeimanMarcus.com is offering free rush delivery for orders placed through noon on Thursday.

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