Despite a slower start to the holiday shopping season, small online retailers are expecting big sales gains over last year -- with many hoping to lure more shoppers through a range of Web-exclusive deals, market watchers say.
Most of these incentives will be geared toward Cyber Monday, the industry catchphrase for the first working day after Thanksgiving when consumers are said to continue their annual holiday shopping sprees online.
That's more than marketing hype. Two-thirds of the nation's retailers last year reported substantial sales growth on the day, with a third seeing sales jump by 30 percent over the previous year, according to Shop.org, the e-commerce division of the National Retail Federation.
Last year, comScore reported a 25 percent Cyber Monday sales increase for retailers across the board, accounting for a one-day total of more than $600 million in sales.
The prospects for this year are already looking good. In a recent survey of more than 1,900 consumers by PriceGrabber.com, a Los Angeles-based comparison shopping site, 61 percent of respondents said they expected to do even more of their holiday shopping online this year. As many as 88 percent said they planned to do at least half of their gift buying online, while 45 percent planned to do nearly all of it online.
"Every holiday season the experience of shopping online gets easier and faster," says Kevin Potts, a Kansas City, Kans.-based Web consultant.
Indeed, in the PriceGrabber survey respondents cited "savings and convenience" as the top attractions for shopping online. They also said it saved on gas prices, which are hitting record-highs across the country this season. On top of rising consumer prices, higher gas prices have so far kept early holiday shoppers at home. Last week, the Commerce Department reported a slowdown in retail sales in October, led by fewer purchases of furniture, books, CDs, and sporting goods.
"Retailers have tried to entice consumers in to the stores with early sales and promotions this holiday season, but shoppers are clearly on their own schedule," says Phil Rist, the vice president of strategy at BIGresearch, a consumer market intelligence firm based in Worthington, Ohio.
In a recent survey conducted for the National Retail Federaion, the firm found that of more than 7,900 consumers polled the vast majority said they had less than 10 percent of their holiday shopping done.
"Shoppers have yet to put a dent in their shopping lists," says president and CEO Tracy Mullin. "Now that the weather has started to cool, consumers will start to think about holiday shopping by making lists, researching gift ideas, and window shopping around town."
For a growing number, that includes browsing the Web -- a recent Harris Poll found as many as four out of five Americans are now online for average 11 hours a week. And small online retailers looking to tap into this lucrative market are increasingly tying their marketing strategies to Cyber Monday.
This year, the most popular incentive is free shipping, according to Scott Silverman, Shop.org's executive director. Many will also be offering online-only sales, early shopper discounts, and first-time buyer deals. Others are creating "gift idea" pages on their sites, and filling out more product details and information on the Web.
For e-commerce consultant Kevin Potts, the lead up to the holiday shopping season is also a good time for smaller sites to double-check a few Web design basics, including professionally written content, a complete contact page, and consistent main navigation.
"These of course are not the only things a site needs, but all of them are within reach of the average business," Potts says.