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Online holiday expectations setting the bar high again in 2013

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The fourth quarter is now upon us, and all retailers are focused on the holiday season. The U.S. economy has remained tenuous so far this year, and lingering uncertainty in Washington isn’t helping with consumer confidence.  Retail sales are a critical indicator of our nation’s economic health – making NRF and’s holiday sales forecast an important gauge for this very important time of year.

This year, is projecting online holiday sales will rise between 13 and 15 percent over last year to as much as $82 billion. This forecast falls within NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz’s prediction that total holiday sales will grow 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion. In 2012, total holiday sales increased by 3.5 percent, so this could be the second year in a row to top the average annual increase of 3.3 percent seen over the last 10 years.

Like last year, our forecast shows that online sales are an ever-growing piece of the holiday pie. With this in mind, here are some of the factors that I see shaping the holiday season:

Economic variables and consumer spending. Earlier this year, Kleinhenz noted that the consumer will be in “a tug of war between (their) ability to pay and willingness to buy.” As we get closer to the holidays, the government shutdown and how long it lasts will be something to watch.  One of the keys to spending is job growth, an area the retail industry has been leading over the past several years. Recent announcements by Amazon and Walmart and overall trends in holiday hiring are also encouraging.

Holiday strategy and planning has to revolve around customer value. Despite these persistent economic headwinds, retailers have been investing all year to improve their online offerings for Holiday 2013. Top investment areas have included mobile, such as mobile-optimized sites and improvements to user experience on both smartphones and tablets; merchandising tactics like site search and cross-selling on the product and shopping cart pages; more online marketing, increased use of social media, and more. This focus directly benefits consumers, whose expectations have continued to rise for smooth, fast interactions with retailers across all touch points. This can inspire positive word-of-mouth, and happy customers will tell others about their great experience with your brand – more powerful than any ad buy I can think of.

Prepare for the unexpected. In our eHoliday study this summer, retailers told us that load testing is another leading investment area this year. Retailers are also making enhancements in social and mobile to make sure shoppers are able to get that perfect gift as conveniently as possible. Weather is another one of those “x” factors that retailers have to prepare for. Natural disasters and the potential for unseasonably warm or cool weather are reminders to build a degree of flexibility into our plans and keep a close ear to our customers and communities.

Watch for more information about the holiday season on our blog in the coming weeks, and don’t miss the resources available at’s Holiday Central.