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Holiday shopping: Discount stores trail on Web

Source: TJ Maxx

Two overriding themes this holiday season have already been talked to death: the growing importance of e-commerce, and consumers' unyielding expectation for low prices.

But are the two mutually exclusive?

With shoppers turning more and more to the Web—Citi predicted digital sales will rise 15 percent this season—discount retailers are lagging behind their full-priced counterparts in their digital presence.

In the off-price arena, TJX made its second attempt at an e-commerce site in September, but only for its TJ Maxx brand. Department store/discounter Kohl's only recently revamped its site in the second quarter. Ross Stores executives are still pushing back against the platform entirely, saying it does not want to enter the digital realm because of prohibitive shipping costs.

Despite this hole—and analyst opinion that e-commerce is critical for all retailers—experts still do not think discounters are at a disadvantage this holiday season.

"If there's one trend for holiday that I believe in, it's value and getting a good deal," said Citigroup analyst Oliver Chen.

(Read more: A tale of two consumers as consumer sentiment dives)

Traditionally, discounters haven't taken to the Web as aggressively as higher-priced retailers, Chen said. That's because it's harder for lower-priced stores to make a profit when accounting for shipping costs, and because shoppers focused on lower price points may not go online to make purchases in the first place.

Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru said another challenge lies in the type of goods that are offered by stores such as Wal-Mart or Dollar General, which sell consumables and groceries—categories that see dramatically lower online sales than consumer electronics or apparel do.

A recent report by former Citi analyst Deborah Weinswig broke down last year's e-commerce sales penetration among retailers. High-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks and Nordstrom led, ranging from around 20 percent to 11 percent of their sales coming from the e-commerce channel. In contrast, Kohl's online sales came in at around 7 percent, Target at an estimated 2 percent and Dollar General at an estimated 0.3 percent.

This discrepancy becomes a bigger issue as other low-price offerings hit the Web. Fast-fashion chain H&M joined the U.S. e-commerce arena in August, and a growing number of outlet stores—including saksofffifth.com just this fall— are entering the race.

But despite an increase in competition, Mulpuru said there's still plenty of room for the TJXs of the world to enter the online space.

"When you have whole new competitors coming in and the industry is growing at maybe 10, 15 percent a year, there's room for everybody to grow," she said.

(Read more: Wal-Mart response to flub par for course: Experts)

Both Mulpuru and Chen emphasized the importance of retailers having an online presence. Chen said it's an important strategy for any company looking to experience better than average growth, and called attention to Ross in particular, saying the company somehow needs to find a way to make shipping economical.

"We're all switching whether they like it or not," he said.

Some off-pricers are starting to pump resources into the Web, and they're beginning to get a return. Deutsche Bank's Paul Trussell said that Kohl's online efforts have seen robust growth, including a 30 percent increase on the year, on top of last year's 39 percent improvement. He believes the retailer will be able to ship items from 200 store locations this season.

Kohl's also this year enhanced its mobile offerings, adding a feature to its iPhone app that allows shoppers to track Kohl's cash on their phone, and is working to enhance the omnichannel experience by improving in-store Wi-Fi.

Mulpuru said off-pricers' late arrival to the game could actually make their transition to the Web easier, as flash-sale sites like Gilt Groupe have "written the handbook" on how to retain brands' integrity and engage the customer.

It will be more of a challenge for a retailer like Wal-Mart to increase online sales, simply because of the type of goods it offers, she said. Still, the retailer saw its e-commerce sales grow 30 percent on the year ending in the second quarter, and the number of items on its website has doubled since last holiday, to more than 5 million.

Despite their online woes, many discounters are listed as analysts' top picks for the holiday. Weinswig listed Dollar General and Wal-Mart as two of her top picks, citing Dollar General's new store and remodel program; the rollout of tobacco and merchandising initiatives, and Wal-Mart's aggressive advertising campaign and price investments.

Chen listed TJX as a standout in the off-price tier, saying it has done a good job of capturing the 18-to-34 demographic. Still, he said the retailer should be prepared to compete with fast-fashion giants such as Forever 21 and Zara, as shoppers show less brand loyalty.

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson.

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