NEW YORK – Fears of a dismal online holiday shopping season appeared to lift Wednesday, as major e-commerce players such as Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. reported strong online sales growth during November and December.
Yahoo said holiday sales on its shopping Web sites rose 86 percent from a year ago, while Microsoft said its MSN network of Internet services showed sales growth of 56 percent.
The news from the two companies, along with optimistic comments from Wall Street analysts, lifted online retailing stocks, which have been battered by the U.S. economic recession and shaky consumer confidence.
Amazon.com Inc., which runs the most popular online retail site, soared $1.33, or 13.5 percent, to $11.16. Microsoft rose $1.51 to $68.78 on Nasdaq.
Both Yahoo and MSN said consumer electronics, such as digital cameras and portable music players, were among the hottest sellers.
Neither of the companies operates online stores themselves. Instead they host the stores of others and collect fees or take a cut of the revenue.
Meanwhile, analysts were still tabulating overall online sales in November and December, but the consensus is that more dollars were spent online in this holiday season than last year's.
Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Jared Blank said a strong December could push online sales during the holiday season above earlier estimates of 11 percent growth, driven by an increasing number of Internet users.
Without the effect of online travel sales, Jupiter estimates 15 percent growth from a year ago, Blank said. Online travel sales are estimated to be 8 percent lower this season, as the public shakes off jitters from the Sept. 11 airplane hijackings.
Estimates from Nielsen//Netratings, which exclude online travel sales, were more bullish. Chief analyst Lisa Strand said a surprisingly strong December could push holiday sales growth close to a months-old prediction of 43 percent, which was formulated before the events of Sept. 11.
Sales in November had showed more moderate growth, about 10 percent from a year earlier, Strand said, but sales then rebounded in the first two weeks of December.
"Given numbers in November, we were sure we wouldn't meet our number," she said. Now, she said, "it looks like we're going to come fairly close. The e-tailing space is fairly healthy as far as growth year over year."
BizRate.com, a comparison shopping site, said online sales during the weekend before Christmas, which fell on Tuesday this year, were $345 million, up 73 percent from the same weekend last year.
The rise in last minute shopping might indicate greater consumer confidence in on-time package delivery, BizRate.com said.
Amazon.com stock was among the largest gainers of the day, as an analyst with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray made optimistic comments about the company's prospects. Amazon has the largest reach by far of so-called e-tailers, according to data by Nielsen//NetRatings.
"The traffic to Amazon sites has accelerated well ahead of other commerce sites," Piper Jaffray analyst Safa Rashtchy wrote in a research note. The jump in traffic appears to be corresponding with overall sales volume, he said.
Overall sales at retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have impressed Wall Street, boosting hopes that the recession will be short lived. In afternoon trade, the blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average rose 110.78 points, or 1.10 percent.
The variety in industry sales forecasts can be attributed, in part, to the range of methods used to track online sales. Nielsen, for instance, gets its figures from surveys with about 35,000 Internet users a month, while BizRate calculates its predictions from surveys with shoppers who have just made an online purchase.