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Online Sales May Decide If It Was a Naughty or Nice Holiday

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Though the official data has yet to be released, many analysts think the holiday shopping season saw more stingy Santas this year. The question is—did online sales help retailers boost otherwise lackluster brick and mortar sales?

"For holiday '12 sales—the greatest beneficiaries from online in our view would be Macy's and Nordstrom," said JPMorgan retail analyst Matthew Boss.

"These are the two companies who have invested substantially more than their peers and are ahead of the game given multi-channel integration."

Boss expects Macy's online sales to have contributed more significantly in the fourth quarter than the previous two quarters. The holiday quarter was the first to have 290 stores up and running with "Door to Store" capability, allowing greater online assortment without the associate inventory risks.

And he expects 30 percent plus growth in online sales over this holiday season for Nordstrom.

(Read More: Did the Grinch Steal the Holiday Shopping Season?)

But expectations aren't so positive for all retailers in Boss' coverage universe. He believes J.C. Penney was a particular weak point in online sales.

"It appears that the company continues to suffer from out of stock issues online and unfulfilled orders. JCP converted its systems over to JCP.com version 2.0 earlier this year and the conversion has not run smoothly to say the least," Boss said.

Janney retail analyst David Strasser is less bullish when it comes to the added benefit of online holiday sales.

"Consumers have caught on to the discount patterns in retail with brick and mortar and online retail," he said. "Consumers getting smarter, buying around events like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Free Shipping Days. When it's promotional consumers buy, but retailers sacrifice margin. When it's not promotional, consumers hold out, and retailers lose more."

While we will know more Thursday when Target reports December same-store sales, Strasser thinks the holiday season wasn't a good one for the big box retailer. And Jefferies analyst Daniel Binder is lowering his price target to $59 from $74 and downgrading Target shares to "hold" from "buy," partly due to weakness online.

(Read More: US Holiday Retail Sales Growth Weakest Since 2008.)

UBS executive director and specialty retail analyst Roxanne Meyer thinks specialty retailers' online sales could provide a bit of a cushion for overall holiday sales.

"If there's upside to holiday, it will likely be from direct-to-consumer sales, rather than in-store, though the total sales number will be exaggerated from the 53rd week this year," she said.

Meyer thinks Urban Outfitters and Ann Taylor online sales will add the biggest boost to total sales out of those she covers, with an implied boost of 9 percent and 5 percent respectively. Meyer forecasts Urban Outfitters direct-to-consumer sales will account for 27 percent of total fourth quarter sales and Ann Taylor's direct-to-consumer sales make up 16 percent, both up from 2011.

While Wall Street won't know retailers overall holiday financial performance until earnings are released, online retailer Amazon.com said the 2012 holiday season is one for the record books for its more than two million third-party sellers. The e-commerce behemoth said unit growth from sellers in the United States grew more than 40 percent year-over-year, selling "hundreds of millions of units worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide."

Before the holiday season began, the National Retail Federation/Shop.org predicted online holiday sales would grow 12 percent over last holiday season to as much as $96 billion. ComScore said holiday season retail e-commerce spending for Nov. 1 to Dec. 21 totaled nearly $39 billion, marking a 16 percent increase over the same time period in 2011. That is likely to capture the large majority of online holiday spending, despite a likely decent final weekend for brick and mortar retailers.

(Read More: The Season of Giving Back: Holiday Gift Returns Rise.)

Going forward, retailers are banking on online sales growth and are increasing capital expenditure on technology.

"Saks is piloting multi-channel door to store technology today with a live launch across the chain slated for 2013— something we think can be meaningful given a rationalized store base," JP Morgan's Boss said.

UBS's Meyer believes "2013 becomes more meaningful as both Urban Outfitters and Ann Taylor's new omni-channel system will better maximize sales and margins."

-By CNBC's Courtney Reagan; Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com.

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