By Kenneth Corbin
February 11, 2010

While the sluggish economy continues to sap the Internet retail sector, the late stages of the holiday shopping season offered hopeful signs of recovery, according to data released today by online metrics firm comScore.

In 2009, overall e-commerce spending of $130 billion, excluding travel, was flat compared to the previous year, but sales in the final two months of the year saw a 4 percent increase.

“I’m interpreting that as being at the bottom of the troublesome times,” comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni said today in a presentation detailing the findings. “We can say that coming out of the fourth quarter we were seeing some modest growth.”

Fulgoni’s firm is predicting modest growth to continue in 2010, though he warned that several factors continue to dampen spending, such as the high unemployment rate, lower access to credit and an increase in the rate of consumer saving.

ComScore pulls its data from a global panel of about 2 million Internet users, split roughly evenly between U.S. and foreign participants. Each quarter the firm recaps the effects of the economy on the e-commerce sector, compiling data that is generally in line with the official quarterly figures that are later released by the Department of Commerce.

In the fourth quarter, the firm found that e-commerce accounted for 7.7 percent of overall spending in comparable categories, excluding goods like gas or groceries that aren’t generally bought online. That figure was a marked increase from the fourth quarter of 2008, when online spending accounted for just 4.6 percent of overall sales.

This holiday season saw 10 percent more consumers shopping online than last year, though individuals on average spent 5 percent less, with the per-consumer spending tally dropping from $261 in 2008 to $250 last year.

“The continued growth in online buyers I think augurs well for e-commerce,” Fulgoni said. Will online sales hit a billion dollars in a single day?

In addition to a rise in overall customers, the 2009 holidays put up some other impressive numbers, including the first day in history to see more than $900 million in online sales. That day, Dec. 15, a Tuesday, represented a 21 percent increase in spending over the same day in 2008, and invites the possibility that 2010 could see the first billion-dollar sales day.

But the modest signs of economic improvement weren’t enjoyed equally across the online retail sector. The top 25 online retailers saw sales increase 11 percent over the holidays, while the rest of the pack saw an overall sales drop of 7 percent.

“The big are getting bigger,” Fulgoni said. “I suspect that the smaller retailers just were not able to match the resources of their larger brethren.”

Fulgoni noted that special offers played a substantial role in online shopping this year, with retailers offering considerably more deals than last year, though the discounts generally were of far lower percentages than in 2008 when the economy began its plunge and merchants were scrambling to unload excess inventory.

“No question in 2008 I think everyone was caught flat-footed,” he said.

The largest of the large, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Walmart.com (NYSE: WMT), together accounted for 13 percent of online holiday spending, up from 10 percent the previous year. Between those two, it’s an uneven split, with Amazon hosting 85.7 million visitors in December, compared to the 54.2 million shoppers who visited Walmart’s Web site.

ComScore’s findings emphasized the increasing role social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are playing in shaping people’s shopping habits. Twenty-eight percent of comScore’s panel participants said that a social site had influenced their purchase decisions, with 7 percent saying they had become a fan of a business on Facebook, and 5 percent saying they follow a business on Twitter, many in the hopes of receiving coupons or learning of other promotions.

Fulgoni suggested that smaller retailers ramp up their presence on social sites, both as a way of connecting with a growing audience and for the inexpensive promotional mechanisms they offer.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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