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Online retailers step up incentives

But merchants expect a strong holiday season

NEW YORK -- Online retailers stepped up discounting ahead of the deadline this week for most free shipping of Christmas gifts with guarantee of standard delivery. But they're not panicking -- overall, the holiday 2005 shopping season is shaping up well.

Meanwhile, traditional storeowners are waiting for the final shopping week before Christmas to see how their sales turn out.

''This week, consumers can expect to be hearing from retailers reminding them of all the strong promotions that they are offering," said Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C. Online retailers, though, are ''going to be pleasantly surprised."

Online retailers -- like their brick-and-mortar counterparts -- jump-started the season with more generous bargains and free shipping than a year ago because of a spike in gasoline prices. But their anxiety has receded along with the price of fuel in recent weeks. Still, online merchants have increased incentives in the final stretch to seal what they expect will be a strong season. This week, Bluefly.com is offering an extra 20 percent off each day on different apparel. Harryanddavid.com, the gourmet food retailer, is offering a deal where shoppers can buy one item and get the second at half price.

For the 39-day period ended Dec. 9, nontravel spending online surged 23 percent to $12.75 billion from a year ago, according to comScore Networks Inc.

According to the most recent data from Nielsen/NetRatings Inc., an Internet research firm, online shopping trips to more than 100 e-commerce sites shot up 33 percent for the week ended Dec. 4 from a year ago.

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