By  on August 8, 2011

ComScore Inc. on Monday reported that U.S. e-commerce in the second quarter grew at its fastest rate since the Great Recession while sounding a note of caution about how Internet sales would perform during the rest of the year.

E-commerce sales for the April-to-June period totaled $37.5 billion, 13.8 percent above the $32.94 billion reported for the second quarter of last year. The percentage increase tops the 11.8 percent gain registered in this year’s first quarter as well as the 11.2 percent fourth-quarter advance tallied at the end of last year. It also represents the seventh consecutive quarter of increased online spending.

The numbers stood in sharp contrast to Commerce Department figures released last month showing a 0.1 percent increase in personal consumption expenditures, to an annualized level of $10.66 trillion, for the second quarter versus the first quarter or even the 4.6 percent increase for that metric versus the comparable 2010 period.

ComScore didn’t break down individual product and service categories in its discussion of the results, but Andrew Lipsman, vice president of industry analysis for ComScore, told WWD that apparel/accessories and health/beauty products grew at “right around the market average.” Top categories, with increases of 15 percent or more, were consumer electronics, excluding PC peripherals; computer hardware; computer software, and event tickets.

ComScore attributed the strong overall results principally to growth in the number of online buyers, placed at 16 percent, while noting that 70 percent of Internet users made at least one purchase online during the quarter. The Reston, Va.-based digital research firm pointed out that the top 25 online retailers accounted for 66.4 percent of online expenditures, down from 67.7 percent in the 2010 quarter and the peak level of 69.9 percent in the third quarter of 2010.

Without the aftermath of holiday spending, second-quarter e-commerce figures have lagged behind those of the first quarter for the five years for which ComScore has publicly disseminated data. Yet the drop-off from the first to second quarter this year — 1.3 percent — was the smallest quarter-to-quarter contraction on record from ComScore.

But ComScore chairman Gian Fulgoni was quick to point out the risks to online and offline spending for the remainder of 2011. Calling convenience and lower prices the drivers of the shift to online purchasing, he cautioned, “We are constantly reminded of an overall macroeconomic situation that is not indicative of a strong recovery. With economic growth remaining soft, the unemployment rate stubbornly high and financial markets in turmoil, consumers are less optimistic today than they have been in preceding quarters, which raises concerns for the future.

“We believe the third quarter will be an important indicator of which direction this economy is really headed and what that will mean for consumer spending.”

Lipsman noted that second-quarter figures reflected a sense of economic recovery that has evaporated in recent weeks.

“E-commerce has been strong relative to general consumer spending for some time,” he said. “A lot of consumers turned to the Internet during the recession to research the best prices. That hasn’t changed. If anything, we’ve seen a bit of an acceleration of that trend.”

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