National

Nov 9, 2009 11:22 AM by Suzanne Choney

Online holiday shopping is trickier this year

For online holiday shopping this season, get your Facebook and Twitter on, consider expanding your repertoire of retailers and bring your most comfortable slippers. It's going to be a more challenging effort this year than last when the recession was "new," and retailers were frantically pushing heavily discounted products from HDTVs to clothing.

For sure, there will be a lot of good deals. But you may have to search a little harder and wider.

"I'd say don't skimp on looking at Web sites," said Kurt Peters, editor in chief of Internet Retailer. "If you're looking for a deal, don't rule out sites that you might not be familiar with if they have good prices.

"Small retailers actually have been hurt a little more by the recession than larger retailers, so they may be willing to offer better deals," he said. "Look around, and don't just go with the brand name if you find something you like at a good price from a site that seems credible."

"Credible" sites include those bearing emblems such as "TrustE Certified Privacy," "VeriSign Secured" or BBB "Accredited Business," Peters said.

You'll also want to keep an eagle eye out for promotions not just on a retailer's Web site, but also from retailers on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. JCPenney, for example, has created a gifting application on the company's Facebook page, where consumers can buy and complete a deal from within the "walls" of Facebook without having to go to JCPenney's Web site.

"Retailers understand the importance of Facebook and Twitter," said Larry Joseloff, vice president of Shop.org, the online arm of the National Retail Federation.

Twitter, the microblogging site that limits posts to 140 characters, will be used "to announce different promotions and deals and unveiling of new products - things like 'Free shipping starts today,' " he said. "Twitter can be used pretty effectively as a promotional vehicle."

Best Buy will be on Twitter (Twitter name: "Twelpforce") to "provide consumers with online customer service," the company said in a statement. Hundreds of Best Buy staffers "are available via Twitter to answer questions regarding consumer electronics this holiday season."

Toy-maker Mattel is going the extra tech mile with a new site feature that lets families in different areas of the country shop and chat together online.

Offers of free or discounted shipping will abound, but so will strings, such as purchase amounts and date restrictions, and some of those may change depending on how sales are going.

Four out of five online retailers say they will offer free shipping with conditions - meaning the offer applies only to certain items, quantities or dollar amounts - and 57.4 percent will offer free shipping without conditions, according to Shop.org's eHoliday Study. The study, done by BIGresearch, surveyed 70 retailers, large and small within the past few months.

"The retail market continues to be very competitive, and free shipping is the best offer that's out there, the one that consumers relate to the most," said Peters.

"As we have in the past, we'll see some retailers try to hold the line on free shipping, but I don't think they're going to be too successful."

While many consumers are already shopping for the holidays online, "I think merchants are going to be very cautious about offering (special) deals until they see how the market develops," even as far into the season as a week after Thanksgiving, said Peters. "They don't want to start discounting too soon."

You'll also need to keep an eye on the clock and the calendar to track what you plan to purchase and when. Target, for example, started its free-shipping promotion Nov. 1, two weeks earlier than last year. Another detail: Shoppers with furniture orders of $125 or more from Nov. 1 through Dec. 20 will also get a 15 percent discount on those purchases, the retailer says.

If you use PayPal to purchase products online from various merchants, you may be eligible for cash-back and/or free shipping.

Best Buy, for example, is offering $20 cash back on purchase of $100 or more if the buyer uses PayPal between Nov. 10 and 16. Shoe site Zappos.com will offer free shipping both ways on shoes and free overnight shipping on clothing Nov. 10 to 16, if PayPal is used.

At Nordstrom's online site, to receive free shipping on orders of $100 or more until Dec. 20, you need to know to enter the promotional code, "HOLIDAY09" in your order.

You can see where having a highlighter helps.

Online retail giant Amazon.com plans specials, too. "We will be having Black Friday deals launching early this year, starting the Monday of the week of Thanksgiving," said Sally Fouts, a company spokeswoman.

"And then we'll have some great deals Cyber Monday as well. But we focus on low prices year-round as well as some really great shipping options."

Cyber Monday, the Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend, was created by the National Retail Federation as a way to promote specials and spur online buying. This year, it's Nov. 30.

"Initially, Cyber Monday defined the supposed phenomenon of people shopping online when they got to work and had higher-speed Internet access than they had at home," said Peters.

"Most people have high-speed Internet at home now. But, there's something to be said for the Cyber Monday phenomenon in terms of retailers using it to promote their products."

In addition to free shipping being a key offering, online retailers say they'll emphasize limited-time promotions as well as coupons, according to the National Retail Federation survey.

Online coupons from merchants also will be plentiful, as will coupons from sites such as Dealtaker.com, Couponshack.com, Offers.com, Couponcabin.com, Dealbandy.com and Retailmenot.com.

Mobile coupons, too, will be in the works for some retailers who are starting to send text-message alerts about promotions and sales to cell phone users who want them.

The cell phone was the medium of choice for Victoria's Secret last month, when it offered coupons and promotions for a new store that opened in Chicago.

And some phones - such as the iPhone, BlackBerrys and Android-based devices - have "apps," or applications, that can be used for holiday coupons as well as getting information on specials.

"Mobile is coming on strong," said Peters. "A number of initiatives are coming together to make mobile happen. One is the almost total adoption of cell phones by the American populace. The phones are getting smarter and smarter, and the younger generation - people under 25 or so - are just so used to doing so much on their mobile phones.

"Over the next few years, as that population moves into their prime consuming years, more of retail sales will happen on a mobile device."

Online holiday retail sales in the United States will increase 8 percent over last year, according to a recent forecast by Forrester Research, with sales reaching $44.7 billion.

The National Retail Federation, which surveyed 2,623 consumers for its eHoliday Study, said that 67.3 percent of them plan to use a credit card for some, but not all, online purchases.

A third will also use debit cards and PayPal. Another 11.5 percent of shoppers say they plan to use a gift card or gift certificate to buy with, and 6.6 percent will use the online service, Bill Me Later, essentially a credit account where payment can be deferred for up to 90 days. Both Bill Me Later and PayPal are owned by eBay.

Despite changes in online shopping, retailers are staying focused on the basics, making sure their Web sites are up and running properly, said Joseloff of Shop.org.

"Retailers have been really trying to take a step back and make sure their sites are functional - they don't want to lose sales for reasons like maybe their company's shopping cart is overcomplicated, or their product isn't explained," he said. "They're making sure their products are merchandised correctly."

 

 

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