September 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

Online retail sales slip in Q2 as consumers spend more cautiously

Online sales in the second quarter fell 4.5% from the year-ago period, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports. ComScore, with a different research formula, says online sales dipped 1%.

The recession is not yet over when it comes to online sales.

Online retail sales in the second quarter were down 4.5% from Q2 last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports. Sales in Q2 2009 were $30.8 billion compared to $32.2 billion a year ago, on a basis that does not adjust for trading days or price changes. On an adjusted basis, sales declined 4.4% to $32.4 billion from $33.9 billion a year earlier.

By comparison, Internet audience measurement company comScore Inc. reports Q2 online sales were down 1% from the year-earlier quarter.

The Commerce Department reports that total retail sales fell 10.6% on a not-adjusted basis and 10.7% on an adjusted basis. However, almost all of that decline was the result of falling gasoline prices and the pullback in auto sales. Factoring out those two areas, retail sales fell 2.8% in Q2 versus a year ago. Further eliminating food servcie, restaurant and drinking establishment sales, the decline amounted to 3.5%. The Commerce Department reports a plus or minus factor of 2.1% in its online sales estimate.

The difference in numbers between comScore and the Commerce Department is partly the result of methodology and partly a matter of what each organization counts. ComScore extrapolates its data from the behavior of a panel of online consumers who have granted comScore permission to monitor their online activity. The Commerce Department bases its numbers on a survey of retailers, then projects those numbers to the market.

Neither organization reports sales at, although the Commerce Department includes the fees that eBay generates in its retail sales.

Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore, points out that when differences in what each entity counts are eliminated, the figures don’t have quite such a wide gap. “The Department of Commerce includes autos and auction commissions while comScore does not,” Fulgoni says. “We include tickets while Commerce does not. If one adjusts the comScore data for these differences, our data shows a 3.8% drop in Q2 sales versus a year ago compared to the Commerce Department’s 4.5% decline.”

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