As consumers hold tight to their wallets, online retailers will work harder this year for their share of the holiday gift list.
With a holiday season that is expected to be the weakest since 2002, and numbers of new online customers leveling off, more Web retailers have been pushing special offers and promotions to draw consumers.
As the online holiday shopping season officially kicked off yesterday, a number of retailers hosted one-day sales or special offers for the occasion.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, tagged "Cyber Monday" by the National Retail Federation, marks the first big online shopping surge for many merchants, as consumers go back to their work computers.
Toys "R" Us will hold a one-day online sale and rival eToys.com will launch a two-day sale.
Wal-Mart Stores will begin five days of online-only sales.
Online jeweler Blue Nile will give customers 20 percent off purchases paid through PayPal, eBay's electronic payment division.
Target Corp, Circuit City Stores, Sears Holdings, Crate & Barrel, the Discovery Store and Overstock.com are among dozens of retailers offering free shipping that day.
"The online community is getting more competitive as the amount of new customers slows," according to Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, an online arm of the National Retail Federation. "Add to that the concerns about the economy, and promotions and sales provide a great way to get people excited."
Silverman said the number of retailers offering free shipping with no conditions, such as a minimum purchase, has jumped to 41.4 percent from 36 percent last year.
Nearly one-third of retailers held special one-day sales for Cyber Monday, according to the NRF's annual survey. The number of retailers planning some type of special promotion surged to 72 percent of those polled from 42 percent just two years ago.
As people trickle back to the office after the holiday weekend, another NRF survey polling shoppers online reports that more than half of adults plan to shop at work. How much they will ultimately spend is the real question.
A survey by Nielsen Online forecasts most respondents will spend the same share of their gift budget online as in 2006, which could be bad news for e-tailers.
"The fact that consumers expect to allocate the same share of what may be a shrinking overall holiday budget to the Web suggests that online sales growth might not live up to the 20 percent annual growth rates we have seen in years past," Ken Cassar, vice president of industry solutions for Nielsen Online, said in a written statement.
Analysts at Forrester Research said American consumers are expected to spend $33 billion online this holiday season, up 21 percent from a year ago. This is a slightly slower growth rate than the 23 percent seen last year.
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