November 20, 2009, 12:00 AM

The latest holiday sales indicators twinkle more brightly for e-retailers

There are more positive than negative signs for online retailers in recent reports on retail sales and consumers’ holiday spending plans.

There are more positive than negative signs for online retailers in recent reports on retail sales and consumers’ holiday spending plans.

After three consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines, the U.S. Commerce Department estimates that online retail sales grew 1.8% to a seasonally adjusted $34 billion in the third quarter. Total retail sales fell 7.5% in Q3, a sign consumers continue to move their spending to the web.

Less rosy was the third quarter estimate from web measurement firm comScore Inc., which says Q3 online retail sales fell 2% compared to a year ago to $29.6 billion. That marked the first time that comScore’s retail web sales estimate had declined for two quarters in a row. ComScore makes estimates based on consumer data, and the Commerce Department on a survey of retailers. The Commerce data includes online auto sales and the fees eBay Inc. charges online merchants.

More web shopping

Whether online sales were up or down in the third quarter, there were positive trends for web merchants in the Commerce Department’s overall retail report for October.

While the agency says total retail sales fell 1.7% in October, sales of general merchandise-the goods consumers are most likely to buy online-rose 1.5%, led by such popular online categories as apparel and accessories, up 3.6%, health and personal care items, up 3.8%, and sporting goods, hobby, book and music sales, up 3%.

Moreover, several studies point to positive online shopping trends for this holiday season for retailers with the right merchandise offers.

55% of frequent web shoppers plan to shop online this holiday season, up from 49% last year, and e-commerce will account for a 26% share of holiday spending, up from 21% last year, says research and advisory firm The E-tailing Group Inc., which surveyed 1,020 online shoppers in October.

The study also found that 48% of respondents plan to buy from six to 15 gifts this holiday season, virtually the same as 47% last year, and 43% plan to spend between $301 and $800 on gifts.

Meanwhile, a study by MyBuys Inc., a provider of online product recommendations technology, found that 150 retailers across several product categories posted an overall year-over-year increase in October online sales of 12.6%, largely by offering price discounts on many products.

And an October survey of 4,000 shoppers by consultants Retail Forward suggests consumers are a bit more confident this year than last. Only 45% say they plan to cut back on holiday spending, compared with 50% in last year’s survey, while 7% plan to spend more this year on holiday gifts, the same percentage as last year.

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