February 9, 2010, 12:00 AM

E-retail spending finished flat for 2009, comScore says

After three quarters in negative territory, a strong holiday season brought 2009 online retail sales up to the level of 2008, comScore says. Counting travel, consumer e-commerce spending was down 2%, the first year ever of negative growth.

A strong holiday season kept online retail from finishing 2009 in negative territory, and offers hope for a better year for e-retailers in 2010, web measurement firm comScore Inc. said in a report released today.

E-retail sales trailed the prior year for most of 2009, but year-over-year gains of a few percentage points in November and December allowed e-retail to finish the year at $129.8 billion in sales, essentially unchanged from $130.1 billion in 2008. The holiday season comeback “does suggest that the tides of consumer sentiment are beginning to turn and that 2010 may be a healthier year for retail e-commerce,” noted comScore’s report, “The 2009 U.S. Digital Year in Review.”

Despite the fall-off from growth rates that were consistently in double digits before slipping to 6% in 2008, the web remains a relative bright spot for retailers, comScore says. “New buyers continue to enter the channel, and as average spending per buyer rebounds off its 2009 lows, the e-commerce channel should return to healthy growth rates,” the report says.

While e-retail held steady in 2009, online travel sales declined 5% to $79.8 billion. That resulted in total consumer e-commerce spending falling 2% to $209.6 billion in 2009, the first decline ever, comScore says.

The report notes that only a handful of online retail categories registered higher sales in 2009. Leading the way was books and magazines, which grew by 12%, followed by computer software (excluding PC games) 7%; sports and fitness 6%; jewelry and watches 4%; video games, consoles and accessories 3%; consumer electronics 3%; and computers, peripherals and PDAs 1%.

More consumers searched online in 2009, and they searched more often. The number of unique individuals who searched increased 6% and searches per individual searcher increased 10%, resulting in a 16% gain in total search queries. Microsoft improved to a 10.7% search market share from 8.3% on the strength of the launch last year of its new Bing search engine. But Google remained dominant, accounting for 65.7% of searches in December 2009, comScore says.

Other trends noted in the report were more consumers participating in online social networks, viewing online video and purchasing high-end mobile phones that can access the web.

  • Four out of five Internet users visited a social networking site in December, and social networks now account for 11% of web activity, comScore says. Facebook is by far the most-visited social network, with 111.9 million unique visitors in December, an increase of 105% from the prior year.
  • 19% more individuals viewed online video in 2009, and 86% of U.S. Internet users watched a video on the web in December. The average online viewer watched 187 videos in December, up 95% from a year earlier.
  • More consumers also can access the web via their increasingly sophisticated mobile phones, the comScore report shows. The penetration of smartphones-computer-like phones such as Apple’s iPhone, and BlackBerry, Palm and Google handsets-increased to 17% of U.S. mobile subscribers by December 2009, up from 11% a year earlier.


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