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Online holiday sales flourish

Holiday sales might have been ho-hum at shopping malls this year, but on the Internet, they boomed.

Online holiday sales grew by about 29 percent from a year ago, according to some estimates, much better than the 2 to 5 percent gains expected at traditional stores.

Shoppers spent about $15.8-billion on the Internet during November and December, according to the latest projections from Web tracking company ComScore Networks. This year's increase in online sales was better than many analysts had expected, almost matching last year's 30 percent annual gain.

To be sure, e-commerce is enjoying large percentage gains because the industry, almost nonexistent a decade or so ago, is in its infancy. Online commerce accounts for about 5 percent of retail sales.

And even with this shopping season's strong showing, it's becoming more clear that Internet "e-tailers" are not even coming close to replacing traditional stores, as some suggested they would a few years ago amid the dot-com hype.

"If there were people predicting that online retail would overtake (traditional retail stores), I think they were definitely overestimating its effect," said Graham Mudd of ComScore Networks.

That said, it's hard to overstate the effect the Web had on retailers and shoppers this holiday season. Inc., the undisputed leader and bellwether indicator for the e-commerce business, said this year was the best in its 10-year history. At its peak, Amazon sold 32 items every second and shipped purchases to 217 countries around the globe.

During the week leading up to Christmas, nearly one in 10 visits to the Internet in the United States, whether they led to a sale or not, were to a shopping or classified advertising Web site, according to Web tracking service Hitwise.

Thanksgiving Day was the biggest day in history for visits to Internet shopping sites, according to the firm.

Even sites not typically associated with holiday shopping saw some of their best Web sales this year.

Dell Inc.'s was the third most visited shopping site on the Internet during the week leading up to Christmas, according to Hitwise.

Only eBay and Amazon had more visitors.