E-tailers see holiday joy in early sales

Despite gloomy predictions, online retailers say they have rung up surprisingly strong holiday shopping figures in the past week.

Greg Sandoval
Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
3 min read
Despite gloomy predictions, online retailers said they rang up surprisingly strong holiday shopping figures during the past week.

Online operations have warned that the tepid economy and the Sept. 11 attacks could give e-tailers a one-two punch this holiday season. And while overall growth is tailing off--e-commerce is generally growing at less than half the rate of last year, analysts say--many e-commerce stocks were up Monday on news of brisk online shopping.

Amazon.com shares closed Monday up $3.13 to $12.21, a 34 percent jump and the first time the shares have broken the $10 mark since Aug. 22. Goldman Sachs analyst Anthony Noto said Amazon is on pace to meet earnings expectations of a 4 percent increase in sales from last year at this time. At Barnes&Noble.com, shares closed Monday up 28 percent, or 29 cents, to hit $1.30.

"These numbers are a lift because expectations were so low," said Safa Rashtchy, an Internet analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray.

By almost every indicator, online shopping was up the Friday after Thanksgiving, known as "Black Friday" because it's so busy retailers would always be in the black that day. This year, it came a week early since Thanksgiving is usually the last week of November.

Without disclosing sales figures, Amazon reported selling about 12,000 more items per hour than it did at the same time last year. The company also pointed to more people setting up wish lists on its site, almost twice as many as last year. At Yahoo Shopping, there were almost double the number of transactions from last year, and BlueLight.com reported that sales were up 45 percent from last year.

Going into the holiday season, some retailers have been wary about predicting big numbers, despite optimistic predictions from research firms such as Jupiter Media Metrix and Nielsen/NetRatings. Gartner researchers predicted $11.86 billion in sales in North America this holiday season and more than $25 billion worldwide. Last year, e-commerce holiday sales hit $9.1 billion, according to a Gartner analyst. Many research firms agree that sales hit more than $9 billion.

Nielsen/NetRatings reported Monday that 22 percent more Internet users shopped the day after Thanksgiving compared with the normal Monday through Thursday average. Amazon had 1.7 million daily unique visitors the day after Thanksgiving, up from 1.3 million visitors the previous Friday. Wal-Mart more than doubled its online visitors to 355,000 on the day after Thanksgiving.

Some analysts remain bearish, noting that while there will be more shoppers online this year, they are expected to spend less money. Surveys by Jupiter found that Internet shoppers will spend $259 compared with $300 last year.

"I think that it's way too early in the holiday season to call yet," Noto said. "The most critical shopping weeks are the next three weeks."

That doesn't dampen Richard Blunck's enthusiasm. The new chief executive at BlueLight.com said the company is happy with the past week's sales, particularly since the company didn't offer special holiday bells and whistles to attract customers.

"We had a very strong four days," Blunck said Monday. "We got back to the basics this year. We're not offering any free shipping or any of those things...E-commerce will definitely make us money; we're sure of it."

Analysts credit the reports of brisk shopping to fewer online competitors giving the remaining sites a boost, and to the growing sophistication of both online shopping sites and their customers.

Online retailers also got a boost from the Sept. 11 attacks: Some retailers say sales have dried up in their mall locations because fewer people want to gather in large numbers since the attacks. Plus, with fewer people expected to fly this season, people who would normally hand-deliver their gifts are looking for alternative ways to buy and send gifts, said analyst Ken Cassar of Jupiter Media Metrix.

For shopper John Mozena, it had to do with better Web sites and his own comfort with shopping online.

"I've gotten more comfortable with e-tailers as they've gotten better at securing their sites," said Mozena, who has been buying goods online since 1997. This season, he's already picked up gifts at Wine.com and the U.S. Geological Survey site.