December 17, 2008, 12:00 AM

Consumers kept their wallets closed last week, both online and offline

Shoppers remained tentative last week, with online sales down 2% vs. a year ago, comScore reports, and store sales virtually flat—down 0.3%—compared to the same week last year, according to ShopperTrak.

Shoppers remained tentative last week, both online and offline, according to new data out today. Online sales slipped 2% for Dec. 8 to 14 compared to the same week a year ago to $4.54 billion from $4.64 billion, comScore Inc. reports. Store sales were virtually flat-down 0.3%-compared to the same week last year, according to ShopperTrak Corp.’s National Retail Sales Estimate.

“It appears that the spending surge we saw immediately following Thanksgiving has given way to more moderate buying during the most recent week,” says comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni. “The current week will be particularly crucial to the overall performance of the season, as we expect to see heavy spending during the final days of online buying that qualify for guaranteed delivery by Christmas.”

For the season so far-Nov. 1 to Dec. 14-online sales are flat compared to last year: $20.17 billion this year vs. $20.26 billion last year, according to comScore, as are store sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, which tracks weekly sales.

Consumers are looking for deals, especially free shipping, according to comScore. When free shipping offers increased for the weeks ending Nov. 30 and Dec. 7, average tickets and sales increased, comScore reports. When the number of free shipping offers receded last week, sales followed.

ComScore offers the following data on free shipping and sales. The first percentage is the proportion of retailers offering free shipping, the dollar number is the average order value that week and the second percentage is increase or decline in online spending over the same week a year ago:

  • Nov. 16, 36%, $93, -7%
  • Nov. 23, 39%, $99, -11%
  • Nov. 30, 42%, $120, 1%
  • Dec. 7, 40%, $133, 7%
  • Dec. 14, 38%, $104, -2%
“Over the past few years, free shipping has emerged as a critically important incentive for online shoppers, and its importance has been magnified in the current retail environment,” Fulgoni says. “The most recent week has shown retailers that now is not the time to pull back on the offers that are successfully persuading consumers to spend.”

On the store front, foot traffic to retail stores last week fell 17.9% compared to a year ago. With traffic declining much faster than sales, consumers are being more efficient in their shopping.

Stores were busier last week than the week before, however. ShopperTrak reported that traffic was up 16% compared to the week before, with sales up 18%. “Week-over-week sales showed a huge increase as Christmas and Chanukah draw near and the number of viable shopping days dwindles,” ShopperTrak explains.

“The upcoming weekend contains Super Saturday, which ShopperTrak expects to be the number two performing day this holiday shopping season, just behind Black Friday,” says Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak. “Because of this, procrastinating shoppers should have a wide array of good deals as retailers have extended sales and promotions to encourage folks to buy during this critical final weekend leading up to both Christmas and Chanukah.” Chanukah begins Sunday evening, Dec. 21, this year.

“Super Saturday” is the Saturday before Christmas. “Black Friday” is the day after Thanksgiving.

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