Online Retailers to Emphasize Free Shipping, Social Media this Holiday Season

The economy is not only impacting shoppers, it’s affecting online retailers, too. According to results of’s eHoliday Study, conducted by BIGresearch, shoppers will see changes in retail marketing and promotions this holiday season in response to economic uncertainty.

With an understanding that many of today’s shoppers use Facebook and Twitter regularly, and because these tools are more cost-effective than traditional advertising, 47.1 percent of retailers surveyed will be increasing their use of social media this holiday season. More than half of retailers said they have added or improved their Facebook page (60.3%) and Twitter pages (58.7%) this year, while two-thirds (65.6%) have added or enhanced blogs and RSS feeds. In addition, to provide consumers with an extra incentive to start shopping, one-third of retailers (34.3%) say they will offer holiday deals earlier this year.

As another sign of the times, free shipping offers will abound this holiday season. Four out of five online retailers (79.4%) will offer free shipping with conditions* at some point during the holiday season, while more than half (57.4%) also plan to offer free shipping without conditions. More than one-third (35.7%) said their budgets for free shipping are higher than last year, and nearly as many (30.0%) said free shipping offers will start earlier than a year ago.

“Retailers know that times are tough so they have created promotions and incentives to help Americans save money this holiday season,” said Scott Silverman, Executive Director of “From free shipping to Facebook, online retailers are combining new initiatives with tried-and-true tactics to make their companies stand out.”

Online retailers are also compensating for the economy by making operational changes to help them protect their profits. According to the survey, 41.4 percent of retailers have scaled back on inventory levels and 22.9 percent have hired fewer people in their stores.

While online growth is expected to slow this holiday season, it remains a bright spot in retail. According to the survey, 45.8 percent of online retailers expect their holiday sales to increase at least 15 percent over last year, while one-third (33.9%) expect sales to grow up to 14 percent. As a testament to the economy and the maturity of online retail, just one in five online retailers (20.3%) expects sales to be flat or decline.

In addition to a strong focus on sales and free shipping, many online retailers have revamped their websites this holiday season to make it easier for people to shop. According to the survey, many retailers have added or revamped their sites’ shopping cart (45.2%), search capabilities (44.3%), suggested items (42.9%), customer ratings and reviews (40.6%), and featured sale pages (37.1%).

Largely due to the convenience of the web, more than one-fourth of online shoppers (26.7%) said they plan to spend a larger portion of their holiday budget online this year. Reasons behind why people will spend more online range from the ability to shop at all hours of the day (41.9%) to shoppers feeling it is easier to compare prices (34.0%) to Americans’ insatiable appetite for free shipping (33.1%). Others said they will spend more online because it’s simply more convenient for them (32.4%), they don’t want to fight crowds in stores (24.9%) or because it’s easier to find items (16.7%).

The small percentage of people (5.7%) who plan to spend less of their holiday budget online said that they’ll pull back due to expensive shipping charges (22.8%), because they like to see or handle items before they buy (12.5%) or because they prefer a store experience (10.8%). A fraction of shoppers said they hesitated to shop online due to concerns about security (1.1%), credit card theft (0.6%), privacy (0.1%) or concerns about retailers tracking online activity (0.1%).

“In a year where every penny counts, many people will start their holiday shopping online to find deals, search customer reviews to select products, and get gift ideas,” said Phil Rist, Executive Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, BIGresearch. “The benefits of online shopping far outweigh the drawbacks, as far as most shoppers are concerned.”

With online retailers diversifying payment options, customers have more ways than ever to pay for holiday gifts. According to the survey, two-thirds of shoppers (67.3%) will use a credit card for some online purchases this holiday season, though one-third will also use a debit card (35.6%) and PayPal (33.9%) for purchases. In addition, 11.5 percent of shoppers plan to use a gift card or gift certificate to pay for holiday items online this year.

About the Study

The eHoliday Study, now in its eighth year, provides an authoritative snapshot of the holiday activities of both large and small online retailers, many of which have been in business for at least ten years, and also includes the sentiments of online holiday shoppers. The Study, conducted by BIGresearch for, surveyed 2,623 consumers from September 23 – October 6, 2009 and 70 online retailers from September 14 – October 6, 2009.

BIGresearch is a consumer market intelligence firm that provides unique consumer insights that are gathered online utilizing very large sample sizes. BIGresearch’s syndicated Consumer Intentions and Actions survey monitors the pulse of more than 8,000 consumers each month to empower its clients with unique insights for identifying opportunities in a fragmented and changing marketplace., a division of the National Retail Federation, is the world’s leading membership community for digital retail. Founded in 1996,’s 600 members include the 10 largest retailers in the U.S. and more than 60 percent of the Internet Retailer Top 100 E-Retailers. It’s where the best retail minds come together to gain the insight, knowledge and intelligence to make smarter, more informed decisions in the evolving world of the Internet and multichannel retailing. programs and activities include benchmarking research, events and networking communities.

* Free shipping with conditions means that a customer must purchase a certain item or a certain number of or dollar amount of merchandise before receiving the offer.

View the survey results and sample charts.