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Web Retailers Race vs. Christmas Clock

Tony Avelar

It's later than you think: Today is the last day to buy online at big box.com stores like Sears, Target, Wal-Mart Stores and Amazon.com in time for regular Christmas delivery.

E-commerce is drawing more customers than ever before. But increased online shopping doesn't mean increased online buying.

I believe that we are at a turning point for e-commerce. For years we have been hearing about how the consumer is getting more comfortable with online shopping and how retailers are making their sites much accessible to consumers.

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I think we have now reached a point where the vast majority of shoppers make their decisions on where to buy based on ease, price and time constraints (weather factors in here, too).

According to CNBC's Holiday Central survey, 22% of consumers bought gifts at e-commerce sites -- up from 18%. It just trails the 27% of shoppers who purchased at brick-and-mortar stores. Traffic is also up in part, because sites have gotten easier to navigate and retailers are savvier than ever.

Google has been working closely with a number of retailers such as J.C. Penney in order to help them drive traffic to their site via Google's search engine. (Search a hot item in Google Search and the results are likely to come up with direct links to stores where you can buy that item.) For that reason, Internet research firm comScore recently declared Google the No. 1 comparison-shopping channel.

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The spending rate is lower though -- something we haven't seen at malls. Twenty two billion dollars has been spent online this season, down 26%. Just like at brick-and-mortars, spending by households making less than $50,000 a year is soft: up just 10%. (At the same time, spending by household with income $100,000 a year is up 28% this year.) That means retailers have to push promotion deadlines to pull in last-minute dollars.

Today, the International Council of Shopping Centers reported that consumers are buying in malls at the slowest rate in four years. What we haven't seen in stores is a cutback in dollars spent. Online is the first place that we're seeing that spending rate decrease. We'll be tracking those last-minute orders to see if the spending online gets a final boost – the same sort of boost the mall-based retailers are betting on.

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Here's my gift to those gift-buying slackers: If you really want to push your luck, you may want to order from the consumer electronics retailers. Last-minute shoppers can delay orders until the 19th at Circuit City Stores and the 20th at Best Buy.

Sidebar: Gender Gap

Chances are if you haven't made any holiday purchases so far, you're a man: One in five men (19.4%) haven't begun their holiday shopping. That's versus 13.7% of women who haven't begun their buying. Personally, I'm about 40% through my shopping list. How complete is your buying?

Questions? Comments? retaildetail@cnbc.com

Retail

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