Shoppers ring up online sales surge

— -- There's no shortage of shoppers this holiday season — at least online.

Consumers spent $18.7 billion online in the first 32 days of the November-December holiday season, a 15% increase over the same time period last year, according to Web-tracking firm ComScore.

And online shopping will continue to increase in the next two weeks, before stores "regain the share of the wallet" the week before Christmas, says Cameron Glass, a retail strategist at consultants Kurt Salmon.

"Online sales will continue to surge but then shift back as we get into the tighter time line around Christmas," she says.

Retailers such as eBay, Amazon and even J. Crew have offered or will keep offering exclusive online deals this month. EBay's "25 Days of Deals" offers customers steep discounts on items including an Apple iPhone 4S and Sony Blu-ray system. J. Crew promoted 25% off everything and free shipping Monday, online only.

Shoppers are attracted to completing purchases on the Web not just for convenience, but for added perks such as free shipping and not having to pay sales tax on many sites, says Andrew Lipsman, vice president of industry analysis at ComScore.

"Each year, more and more retailers have realized that free shipping is just a cost of doing business," Lipsman says, adding that almost two-thirds of online transactions in the two weeks ended Dec. 4 included free shipping.

In a survey by in October, 92.5% of retailers said they planned to offer free shipping at some point this season, vs. less than 85% last year. Nearly 80% of the respondents in the ComScore survey say free shipping is an important component to online shopping, with 36% saying they wouldn't buy online without it.

As consumers become more tech savvy and comfortable making everyday decisions on the Web, retailers will more and more cater to an online experience, Glass says.

"Websites have become much more interactive, much more sophisticated," she says. "A shopper can go on a website and have the same sort of customer experience as they would in the store. They've (retailers) engaged the customer to expect that seamless experience the Web can offer."