Online Retailers Have High Hopes for Holiday Season

Moms and dads sick of refereeing fights through toy store aisles after Friday's official start of holiday shopping are likely to punch up purchases online, sending Web sales for the season sharply higher.

"It's a good year for a change," said Patrick Gates, senior vice president of e-commerce at America Online (search), a division of Time Warner Inc (TWX ). "This year looks very, very encouraging."

The day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday because it once marked the day when retailers got out of the red.

Daniel Sullivan, president and CEO of FedEx Corp.'s (FDX) ground shipment division, told Reuters he expects sales and shipments from e-commerce and consumer electronics items, such as pricey plasma televisions (search ), to give the business a boost this season.

"We're seeing more high-value areas than we've seen in other years," he said, adding he expected revenues and volume from residential customer shipments to grow by "solid double digits."

Indeed, Forrester Research (search ) estimated online sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas to soar 42 percent over last year to $12.2 billion.

Separately, Jupiter Research (search ) found 40 percent of people it polled in a survey said they planned to do some of their shopping on the Internet this year, up 18 percent from a year ago.

First-time online shoppers were lured by heavy discounting in past years, only to leave in droves over shoddy customer service. But now online retailers are touting easier-to-use product comparison tools, said Gates, who spoke with Reuters Television.

In fact, improved comparison tools run by Ask Jeeves Inc (ASKJ ) and CNET Networks Inc. (CNET), combined with perennial incentives like free shipping and the ability to find gifts in stores located near your home, are helping to bring shoppers back online.

Gates said the Web's benefits are likely to spill over to traditional retailers as customers window-shop online before heading out to join the long lines at cash registers.

Such tools are likely to help AOL's own retail sales growth to rise in line with industry estimates of 25 to 42 percent in the fourth quarter.