February 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Holiday shoppers spend more and earlier online, as web sales grew 15% to more than $37 billion

More than half of consumers in a survey said they completed a big chunk of their holiday season 2011 shopping before Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, at the start of a holiday shopping season that saw online sales far outpace store sales.

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Holiday shopping seems to start earlier every year, and that trend continued in 2011. More than half of consumers surveyed by Compete Inc. completed a big chunk of their holiday shopping before Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving so-named because it has traditionally marked the day when many retailers begin to turn a profit for the year.

Black Friday may be losing some of its claim to fame, with 54% of shoppers wrapping up at least a quarter of their 2011 holiday shopping prior to that day, up from 49% a year earlier, Compete says.

The extended holiday shopping season coincided with strong growth in online sales, which rose to nearly $37.2 billion during the 2011 season, up 15% from $32.4 billion a year earlier, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc. By comparison, sales at bricks-and-mortar stores rose about 4% year over year during December, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers and investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

"With bricks-and-mortar holiday retail estimated to have grown about 4% this year, it's clear that e-commerce continues to gain market share from traditional retail due to the attractiveness of the Internet's convenience and lower prices," comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni says. "Consumers were especially attracted to the deals and discounts available through digital channels, particularly free shipping, which occurred on well over half of transactions this season."

That attraction of the online channel resulted in 10 days during the 2011 holiday season with online sales of more than $1 billion, topping off at $1.25 billion on Cyber Monday, the Monday following Thanksgiving.

And small as well as large e-retailers shared in the online wealth. "For the smaller web retailers, the holidays were all about driving traffic and working on the advantage that they had the inventory and product knowledge that the bigger companies didn't," says Jim Okamura, managing director of Chicago retail consulting firm Okamura Consulting.

Fragrance retailer Scentiments.com, No. 446 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, with $15.8 million in 2010 sales, for example, used social media tied to a loyalty program to help boost its holiday sales by double digits.

mark@verticalwebmedia.com

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