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Flocking to the Web for last-minute gifts

Holiday shoppers are clicking for last-minute gifts and bargains in record numbers this year, and online merchants are pulling out all the stops to keep orders coming until the 11th hour.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
4 min read
Holiday shoppers are clicking for last-minute gifts and bargains in record numbers this year, and online merchants are pulling out all the stops to keep orders coming until the 11th hour.

Popular online merchants such as Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, eBay and Walmart.com say traffic on their sites has been much higher this year in the last two weeks of the season--a time when holiday-shopping traffic usually drops off over concerns about on-time delivery.

Monday was the best sales day of the year at BestBuy.com, and the site has had its top three days ever for visitors this week, according to Vice President of Marketing Barry Judge. Last year, the site's best sales day was the Monday two weeks before Christmas.

Judge said the shift is partly due to BestBuy doing a better job of promoting in-store pickup of goods ordered online--a tactic many Web sites are advocating for their shoppers this year.

Pushing in-store pickup and encouraging shoppers to use the online store as a resource for in-store shopping have fueled traffic, he said.

"It's a natural evolution in the way people are shopping," Judge said. "They're using the Web and the store together."

According to Jupiter Media Metrix, the number of unique daily visitors to nearly 500 shopping sites increased 55 percent last week over the same period last year. Traffic increased just 25 percent that week last year, compared to the same period in 1999.

BizRate.com figures also show that sales are up during these final days of the holiday shopping season. BizRate, a comparison shopping site that tracks e-commerce sales, reports that online sales have increased 32 percent in the last 30 days compared to the same period a year ago, jumping from $4.37 billion to $5.77 billion.

Earlier in the shopping season, several analysts warned that holiday sales were leveling off this year.

"People are more comfortable waiting (until) the last minute to purchase online," said Leslie Barry, a spokeswoman for BizRate, which gets its figures from customer surveys and aggregate market data. "They're more comfortable that the merchants they're using will deliver on time."

Last-minute bargains and promotions are also luring customers online. On Thursday, Walmart.com began promoting a list of 10 gift items that can be purchased as late as Friday at 8:00 p.m. EST and still be delivered by Dec. 24. Walmart.com was the eighth most visited Web site in November, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

"Given the current economic conditions, we see a lot of customers shopping for value, and that's what WalMart is known for," said Cynthia Lin, spokeswoman for Walmart.com.

Traffic on eBay and eBay's Half.com doubled last week compared to the same week last year, according to Jupiter Media Metrix figures.

"People are spending," said Mark Hughes, vice president of marketing for Half.com.

Online gift certificates, sent via e-mail and delivered instantly, are a new and popular addition to Half.com this year, said Hughes. "You don't have to worry about shipping. You can be a lazy as you want and look like a hero."

eBay has targeted holiday shoppers this year with special promotions such as its "greatest gifts" page. The proceeds from the sale of items on that section of the site go to charities. eBay spokeswoman Jennifer Chu said popular toys that sell out in stores but are still available on the site are also boosting traffic.

Amazon has been the big winner this year, remaining the most popular site on the Web with 31.5 million unique visitors--a 32 percent increase over last year--and three times as many visitors as its closest rival, according to November traffic figures from Nielsen/Net Ratings.

Although Amazon's last day for standard shipping was last Friday, people continue to shop, said Carrie Peters, an Amazon spokeswoman. Gift certificates and magazine subscriptions--a new item this year--are popular, she said. As for items that need to be shipped, Amazon says some items can be purchased as late as noon on Dec. 22 and still arrive by Dec. 24.

Amazon's continuing popularity is a testament to the power of the once cherished, now maligned concept of first-mover advantage, say analysts. "They were one of the first and best known e-tailers, along with eBay," said Dawn Brozek, an analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings. "They command significant mindshare among the surfing population."

Amazon chalks its popularity up to experience, and to staying ahead of the innovation curve with features like one-click checkout.

"This is our seventh holiday season," said Peters. "We're making it easier than ever for customers and offering more of the products they're looking for."

The surge in traffic could bode well for Amazon's goal of turning a pro forma profit this quarter for the first time since it launched six years ago.