Online retail sales set a single-day record by topping $900 million

Last Tuesday was the biggest sales day in the history of online retailing, says web measurement firm comScore Inc.

E-retail sales totaled $913 million on Dec. 15, making it the first day ever to top the $900 million mark, comScore says. It followed a disappointing Monday, when sales were 1% below last year. But Tuesday through Thursday were all strong online sales days, comScore says.

“In fact, each day through Thursday December 17—the last day that many online retailers would guarantee free shipping in time for Christmas—saw at least $800 million in spending, which suggests that savvy consumers may have been waiting for those last-minute deals,” says comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni.

For the holiday season, online retail sales are up 3.7% to $24.757 billion from $23.873 billion last year, comScore says. That covers the period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 18. MasterCard Worldwide reported today even stronger online growth, estimating e-commerce sales increased 13.0% for the period Nov. 1-Dec. 12, and 14.4% since the Friday after Thanksgiving. ComScore data is based on the actual online activity of hundreds of thousands of U.S. consumers who agree to let comScore monitor their use of the Internet; the MasterCard SpendingPulse report is an estimate based on activity in the MasterCard payment card network and survey-based estimates of payments by cash, check and other methods.

MasterCard’s SpendingPulse report characterized e-commerce as “one of the stars of the season.” While the SpendingPulse report does not disclose an overall figure for holiday sales, it says only five of the 10 holiday-related sectors it tracks are ahead of last year.

Free shipping has been an especially powerful inducement to online sales this year, according to comScore. For the five days ended Dec. 18, 45% of web retail sales included free shipping, up from 38% during a similar period last year, comScore says. Free shipping can be used by e-retailers to encourage higher spending, comScore says, noting that during the week ended Dec. 6 the average order value of transactions involving free shipping was $134, versus $103 for the typical purchase in which the customer paid for shipping.

Heavy promotion of online sales for the Monday after Thanksgiving, a day some call Cyber Monday, is turning that day into an increasingly important one for e-retailing, an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy playing out online. Sales on that Monday, Nov. 30, totaled $887 million, making it the second-heaviest online shopping day this season, comScore says.

“In a typical year, Cyber Monday tends to be the eighth to tenth heaviest spending day, but this year it moved higher up the list than ever before,” Fulgoni says. “In part, this is due to the fact that the day fell fairly late in the season, so that pent-up consumer demand likely boosted its performance, but also because of the increasing marketing hoopla and promotional activity that surround the day.”

The heaviest shopping days of the holiday season are now likely past, comScore says. Here are the top 10 days for online retail sales in 2009, with sales in millions, according to comScore:

  • Tuesday, Dec. 15, $913
  • Monday, Nov. 30, $887
  • Tuesday, Dec. 1, $886
  • Wednesday, Dec. 16, $874
  • Monday, Dec. 14, $854
  • Thursday, Dec. 10, $852
  • Tuesday, Dec. 8, $828
  • Thursday, Dec. 17, $809
  • Thursday, Dec. 3, $809
  • Wednesday, Dec. 2, $797