December 11, 2008, 12:00 AM

E-commerce could be a mixed bag this holiday season, studies show

New studies reveal several emerging e-commerce trends this holiday season. They show a mixed bag of e-commerce data as online retailers and shoppers alike try out new strategies to adapt to the down economy.

New studies reveal several emerging e-commerce trends this holiday season. They show a mixed bag of e-commerce data as online retailers and shoppers alike try out new strategies to adapt to the down economy.

In the U.S, a new poll by marketing agency Performics, a division of Publicis Groupe, finds that search engine marketers are still hard at work this holiday season despite the economic climate. And, it seems, their work is paying off. Online retail sales stemming from search engine marketing programs on the Monday after Thanksgiving increased 43% compared to the same day last year, Performics says. And sales driven by search on the day after Thanksgiving were even higher, in fact they were higher than any day in 2007.

“What remains to be seen is whether the initial year-over-year growth can be sustained throughout the rest of the season or if consumers consider their shopping to be finished already,” says Nick Beil, CEO of Performics. “Savvy advertisers will focus on ‘follow up’ or ‘don’t forget’ shopping behavior-appealing to consumers to finish the shopping they have already started.”

Performics used sales per advertiser data to determine the growth metrics. Performics figures sales per advertiser by taking total sales and dividing by the total number of active retail search engine marketing programs.

Historically, Performics says its search programs have experienced their busiest day of online holiday shopping on the second or third Monday after Thanksgiving. But, the company says heavy discounting around the Friday and Monday after Thanksgiving this year may have resulted in a buck of the trend.

Another study by market research firm Harris Interactive found more U.S. consumers may be doing their researching online this holiday season, but buying in stores. Shoppers are consulting on average four web resources, the study found. Search engines rank as the number one resource for initiating shopping with 20%, followed by discussions with family, friends or co-workers (15%) and visits to the retail store (15%). Search engines ranked as one of the top-three shopping resources for every demographic studied.

However, despite the growing importance of e-commerce, Harris found most actual purchases, 67%, were made in bricks-and-mortar stores, even though 46% of those in-store purchases began with web research compared to 21% that began with research in the store.

The survey polled 2,376 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older between October 28 and 30.

“The retail business is shifting to merge online with traditional retail outlets,” says Mary Bouchard, senior research director and lead retail industry expert for Harris Interactive. “Retailers need to do it all – harness web-based tools, keep a careful eye on the growth of mobile commerce and not neglect their physical stores.”

Survey respondents said the range of products, availability of multiple brands and ease of search were the top three reasons they bought online. Top incentives for in-store purchases were the ability to physically test the product and avoid shipping fees.

Another online shopping research report by Sloan MIT Professors released this week projected that online sales could fall as much as 15% for e-retailers that open bricks-and-mortar stores, because an online merchant with a physical location in a state must charge online shoppers in that state sales tax for online purchases. That, the professors argue, could lead shoppers to shop at web-only retailers who don’t have brick-and mortar stores and don’t tack on taxes.

"On the Internet, we found that when sales tax was charged, demand dropped about 16%,” says MIT Sloan Marketing Professor Duncan Simester.

Tax experts note, however, that consumers in states that charge sales tax are expected to pay their own sales or “use” tax on items purchased from out-of-state retailers who don’t collect sales tax.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Monday, Dec. 8 was projected by many in the industry to be the busiest online shopping day. But a study from eDeals.UK, a rewards web site that tracks purchases from more than 2,000 UK retailers, found that while the number of purchases was up 11%, online sales were down 7% from a week earlier.

"Consumers are seeing big sales everywhere, and are confident online retailers will produce better and better deals the closer we get to Christmas,” says marketing manager Nadeem Azam. “This is encouraging them to leave their online Christmas shopping later than ever this year.”

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