Reaching buyers

Online shopping exploding, but customers still like stores and catalogs

Luke M. Vaillancourt, director of digital marketing at Vaillancourt Folk Art in Sutton, processes Internet orders. (T&G Staff / TOM RETTIG)

The gifts from The Red Envelope have arrived. So have the purchases from The Wine Enthusiast. The Lord & Taylor cash-mere? Well, that didn’t work out so well for Mary B. Lucius. The retailer shipped her the wrong items.

Despite that setback, Mrs. Lucius of Worcester has been clicking her way through her gift list, often browsing through catalogs first for ideas and steering clear of malls. It’s a routine that the busy business owner, wife and mother has followed for several years, and she has no reason to change it this year.

“I started a business of my own last October, so I’m quite overwhelmed with that,” said Mrs. Lucius. “I have wireless (Internet) at work, so if I have a break there, I’m shopping almost exclusively online, trying to avoid the stores.”

So are many other consumers, and their clicking and buying is likely to pick up in the next week. Forget the hype about “Cyber Monday,” the Monday following Thanksgiving. Although Cyber Monday is a busy day for online retailers, the real surge in online shopping in recent years has typically occurred the second and third weeks in December. If the same holds true this year, the biggest day for online holiday shopping could occur as soon as tomorrow, and retailers are angling for customers.

At stake are billions of dollars in sales: books, toys, clothing, electronics, you name it. Retail and technology experts expect that online shopping, fueled by retailers’ discounts and promotions such as free shipping, could push online holiday sales up 20 percent or more over last year.

“There are still more big days to come,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester Research analyst who has forecast that consumers will spend $33 billion online this holiday season, up 21 percent over last year. “There’s probably more discounting to come. We’re still early in the game.”

Online shopping is so ordinary that it’s easy to forget it was a new frontier just a few years ago. In 2003, online shoppers spent $14.5 billion during the holiday months of November and December, not including travel purchases, according to comScore Inc. Last year, shoppers spent $27.17 billion online during the same period, nearly twice as much.

So far this holiday season, online purchases total $17.29 billion, comScore reports. About $733 million of that purchasing occurred on Cyber Monday, up 21 percent over last year.

It’s also true that shoppers are doing a good bit of their buying at work. ComScore reported that about 45.5 percent of all nontravel online shopping during November took place at shoppers’ work locations, suggesting that people may not always want to buy at home, even if they’ve secured high-speed Internet connections.

Retailers have embraced shoppers’ growing online presence, sometimes in surprising ways. Some retailers have stepped up their catalog efforts, recognizing that shoppers use the glossy publications to guide their online buying. About 34 percent of 2,521 consumers surveyed in September by Forrester Research said that catalogs encourage them to shop online. Sears Holding Inc. brought back its holiday “Wish Book” this year, and luxury retailer Neiman Marcus mailed out catalogs that were larger than last year’s catalog.

The surge of catalogs has been noticeable at Toni Ballard’s home in Shrewsbury. But it has also helped guide her shopping, sending her online to buy from Franconia, N.H.-based Garnet Hill, an apparel and home furnishings company.

“Every manufacturer on the planet seems to have my address, and I’ve been getting five or six catalogs a day for the last month,” Ms. Ballard said. “Garnet Hill kind of attracted me because it had a really pretty cover and nice graphics, so I decided to go on the Web site.”

Ms. Ballard has also ordered a bocce set online from L.L. Bean of Freeport, Maine, after viewing it in a catalog, and recently purchased clothing at a Coldwater Creek store after receiving the company’s catalog.

“I went in and tried on a few things I saw in the catalog and ended up buying them,” she said.

Other retailers are offering free or reduced shipping, discounts, coupons or special items to lure online shoppers. About 61 percent of shoppers surveyed by Forrester Research said they would be more likely to shop with an online retailer that offers free shipping.

Vaillancourt Folk Art, a privately held maker of hand-painted chalkware that operates a store in Sutton and sells through other entities such as Colonial Williamsburg, has experimented successfully with low shipping fees of $2.50 per order this year and “broadcast” promotions to potential customers by e-mail.

Sales through the company’s Web site have been lower this holiday season compared to last year, said Gary F. Vaillancourt, co-owner of the business, but the average ticket price has jumped to $183 from $143. Shoppers love the discounted shipping, he said.

“We get a better response with free shipping and reduced shipping than we do with discounting product, which is fascinating,” Mr. Vaillancourt said. “And we would prefer not to discount.”

Sales are also strong through the Web sites of Vaillancourt Folk Art’s partners, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Mr. Vaillancourt said.

For some retailers, juggling stores, a Web site and catalogs is nothing new. Staples Inc. of Framingham, the world’s largest office supplies retailer, has been using all three channels to sell goods for years. The company usually offers free shipping for online orders over $50, but it is offering free shipping for all orders during the holiday season this year.

Customers, many of them already among Staples’ regular business customers, are purchasing technology gifts such as laptops, GPS devices, shredders, printers and digital cameras, including those in flashy colors such as pink, according to Chris Madaus, vice president, marketing for Staples Business Delivery, the arm of Staples that includes online sales.

“Most of the products tend to be more than $50 anyway, the technology products, but it tends to drive excitement,” Mr. Madaus said of the free shipping.

Other retailers must tread more carefully. Learning Express Inc. of Devens, which franchises educational toy stores across the country, sells toys online but tries to do so in a way that will not harm its store operators. Three stores in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Nebraska fulfill the online orders for recipients and share the revenues with stores near the buyers, said Meghan S. Powderly, Learning Express director of communications.

“We’re very concerned. Without our franchisees, we wouldn’t be in business,” Ms. Powderly said. “We don’t want to take advantage or take business away from anyone.”

Learning Express is not offering special promotions for the holidays, she said. Still, the company’s online business is growing.

“Our sales continue to exceed last year,” Ms. Powderly said. “For 2007, we are up.”

Not all online shoppers are ready to give up bricks-and-mortar purchasing. Ann M. Lindblad of Rutland purchases toys online for nephews but heads to the museum shops at Old Sturbridge Village and the Worcester Art Museum for other gifts.

“My brother-in-law has said, ‘The kids want this,’ and I could be driving around forever,” said Ms. Lindblad. “I find that (online shopping) saves time, but I like the museum shopping for the entertainment value.”

Mrs. Lucius of Worcester, however, is plotting her remaining shopping with an eye toward avoiding stores. She has already torn out pages from the Sundance, Williams Sonoma and Chefs catalogs for more “power” online shopping. Online retailers offer the chance to buy unique gifts, she said.

“I mean, it’s all basically the same merchandise, just packaged a little bit differently,” she said of mall retailers. “It’s nice if you can get something different.”