Dec. 22, 2005--With Christmas and Hanukkah falling on the same Sunday and shoppers feeling the fallout from hurricanes and a transit strike, the 2005 holiday shopping season is muddling some experts' forecasts.

For instance, observers aren't sure what the biggest shopping day of 2005 will end up being. Traditionally, it's been the Saturday before Christmas (not the day after Thanksgiving, as some people believe), according to Patrice Duker, a spokesperson for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based retailers organization. But this year, the last Saturday before Christmas is also Christmas Eve, a day when many people don't shop.

"Folks do other things on Christmas Eve," Duker said. "It's not a full shopping day for retailers. People may be traveling or spending time at home preparing for Sunday."

Small businesses can turn to their online stores to help avoid disruptions from this year's holiday calendar or lost sales due to events like the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast and the strike in New York, said Richard Feinberg, a professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue University.

American Apparel, the fast-growing clothing retailer, has seen its daily online sales double during the holiday season. Web purchases have helped mitigate any lost sales at its seven New York City stores during the transit strike. Because of the Internet "we've attracted more business from places where we don't have stores," said Matthew Swenson, American Apparel's fashion, media, and product-placement director.

Retailers smaller than American Apparel can also benefit from having Web stores, Feinberg said. Internet sales are growing rapidly; they could increase 24% over the $19 billion spent during the 2004 holiday season, according to the Virginia-based market research firm ComScore Networks.

But Feinberg warned that online stores that don't show up in Web searches won't help small retailers. In those cases, shoppers will just go to larger stores that have a greater Web presence, he said.

"The Internet can be [small retailers'] best friend or worst enemy," Feinberg said. "I may not be able to find whatever it is I'm looking for in Indiana. But if I Google it, I might be able to find what I want. So it can increase your market if you optimize it for a search, or it can hurt you."

Feinberg said that this holiday season's quirks won't stop most shoppers from buying presents, because they'll find other days to do their shopping.

"What the Christmas-on-a-Sunday does is make the shopping more diffused," Feinberg said. "More people are waiting to the last minute. Some probably shopped this last weekend, or maybe the Friday after Thanksgiving."

Retailers felt good about their Black Friday sales this year. But Duker predicted that this year's biggest shopping day would be Saturday, Dec. 17, which falls on the last weekend before Christmas.

Duker expected growth in parts outside the Gulf Coast and New York to help national sales increase. The International Council of Shopping Centers has predicted that U.S. sales will grow by 3% to 3.5%, which would be an improvement over last year, when December sales went up by 1.2% to $349.4 billion.