Looks Like Electronics Stores Will Be Less Crowded This Holiday Season

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Matthew Staver / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Scenes from a recent Black Friday

Last year, shoppers camped out in front of Best Buys for days to be among the first in line for Black Friday sales, and flooded into electronics stores to buy tablets, smartphones, and surprisingly large number of TVs throughout the holiday season. While epic shopping events like Black Friday weekend are sure to draw monster crowds yet again this year, consumers can expect considerably more elbow room in electronics stores for most of the upcoming holiday shopping season.

A new study from ShopperTrak, a research firm that tracks and analyzes retailer foot traffic, predicts decent growth for the Christmas shopping season ahead. Overall, it expects retail sales to grow by 3.3%, and foot traffic to increase 2.8%. The latter is especially significant, considering that foot traffic actually decreased 2.2% from the 2010 holiday season to last year’s season.

But not all stores will see an uptick in shopper visits. “ShopperTrak expects foot traffic to drop steeply by 8 percent in the electronics and appliance sector,” the report states. At the same time, though, electronics sales are expected to creep up slightly, rising 1.5% over the 2011 holiday season.

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The discrepancy—fewer in-store shoppers, yet higher sales—can at least partially be explained by the rising preference to purchase electronics online:

“Some of the traffic decline in the electronics and appliance category can be attributed to consumers going online to research premium-priced purchases or to purchase items at discounted prices,” said [ShopperTrak founder Bill] Martin.

One of the biggest shopping trends for the 2011 holidays (and it goes well beyond holiday shopping, of course) is the ongoing rise of e-commerce. Online shopping experienced an impressive 15% rise in sales during the 2011 Christmas season, compared to a 3.8% increase overall. Retailers should expect strong growth in online purchases during the upcoming holiday season as well.

But while shoppers are clearly becoming more and more comfortable buying electronics on the web—or at least doing research online, then hitting the store once to purchase, thereby also cutting back on foot traffic—other merchandise doesn’t lend itself as well to online shopping. It makes perfect sense that ShopperTrak forecasts an above-average increase of 3.5% in foot traffic for shoppers seeking apparel and accessories, which many consumers feel compelled to see, touch, and try on in person before purchasing.

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In a Consumer Reports piece on where to buy electronics published last December, shoppers not only indicated that their gadget purchases were made online (34% vs. 27% the year before), but also that handling the transaction via the Internet was just a plain better experience:

Online shopping scored higher in almost every respect than did shopping at walk-in stores. The gap extended even to satisfaction with buying televisions, which many consumers might not necessarily think of buying online.

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In light of survey info like that, it’s understandable that primarily brick-and-mortar electronics retailers like Best Buy are struggling mightily, and are likely to continue to struggle through the oh-so-important Christmas shopping period ahead. At least for shoppers who venture into these stores, the aisles won’t be so crowded.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.