Databank Entertainment: Holiday numbers high but unclear

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Retail analysts and industry veterans don't call it Black Friday for nothing. The Friday after Thanksgiving signals the kickoff of the holiday shopping season, and this year was no exception.

The number of consumers who flocked to online shopping destinations surged the week of Nov. 19, up 43% year-over-year as the Jupiter Media Metrix Online Shopping Index hit 50.2 million unique visitors, up from 35.2 million for the same week a year ago.

"While the initial holiday traffic results are positive relative to last year, the key question is whether these shopping patterns will reflect the entire season," said Ken Cassar, Jupiter senior analyst. "It's not clear yet whether the traffic increase is indicative of a much higher level of business than last year or whether retailers pushed sales earlier in the holiday season through promotions that expire early." Amazon.com, for example, offered free shipping on orders of more than $99; the deal expires Dec. 4. Retailers hope to boost sales by pushing demand earlier in the season.

Compared to 2000, online retail traffic on Black Friday-Nov. 23-was up 68% to 16.1 million unique visitors. But Thanksgiving week shopping traffic actually peaked earlier-on Monday, Nov. 19, with 21.2 million visitors. Thanksgiving Day lured fewer eyeballs, with 13.7 million shopping visitors.

Jupiter's Online Shopping Index found that eBay.com, Amazon.com and UAL Corp.'s MyPoints.com racked up the most average daily unique visitors-eBay had 4 million, up 57% over last year; Amazon had 2.3 million, up 49%; and MyPoints scored 1.8 million, a 31% increase over 2000.

Mr. Cassar benchmarked this week as critical to online sales: "By the week of December 10th we'll start to see sales slow down a little with deadlines for ground shipping around the 13th and 14th, ... and the week of the 17th for most retailers, it's only [express delivery from] Fedex, USPS and UPS."

Mr. Cassar and other analysts maintain that the shopping channels of the big three-Yahoo!, AOL Time Warner's America Online and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN-will be major drivers of online gift purchases this holiday. Shopping-site exclusives are far less prevalent these days, so these portals can't boast that a particular brand can only be found on, say, AOL. Online shopping is a free-for-all, though industry consolidation has meant a party for the biggest players this holiday.

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