Holidays May Catch E-Merchants Unprepared

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New York --The online holiday shopping season may arrive sooner than merchants think, according to a study released yesterday.


Twenty-eight percent of 3,851 online shoppers polled in a two-day survey conducted earlier this month said they plan to begin browsing online for holiday gifts before October and almost half plan to shop online before November, according to the joint study by affiliate program broker LinkShare Corporation, New York, and online survey firm BizRate.com, Los Angeles.


Online shoppers' answers differed sharply from merchants' expectations. Of the close to 100 merchants surveyed, just 9 percent said they thought consumers would begin their online holiday shopping three months early.


Also, women will apparently begin their holiday shopping before men. Sixty percent of those who said they would begin browsing before Nov. 1 were women and 40 percent were men.


"What this means is that September's [online marketing] programs should probably focus on women," said Carol Head, vice president, marketing, BizRate.com, presenting the findings to attendees at LinkShare's "Next Phase of E-Commerce" summit held here.


Merchants and online buyers also differed sharply over what drives purchases, the study determined.


While 31 percent of merchants surveyed said they believed guaranteed on-time delivery will be the incentive most likely to make consumers buy products online, just 10 percent of consumers agreed.


"Consumers don't expect a problem, so if they do [experience one] they're going to be more angry," said Head.


And while one-third of merchants said free shipping and handling would be a key incentive to shopping online, 48 percent of the consumers surveyed cited it as the No. 1 incentive that would drive them to buy online.


"This is a charge they're not used to paying," said Head adding it may behoove merchants to drop it.


Also, 22 percent said product discounts would convince them to do their holiday shopping online. Thirteen percent of the merchants surveyed said product discounts would be a key online buying incentive.


Also, posted privacy policies decrease in importance as consumers get comfortable with Internet shopping, said Head. "It's important to newbies, but decreases over time," she said.
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