By Michelle Graff
New York--One of the first, if not the first, holiday sales forecast is out there, and it predicts a pretty merry holiday season for retailers. 

Deloitte’s retail and distribution practice said Wednesday it expects holiday sales to increase between 4 and 4.5 percent over last year, climbing to between $981 and $986 billion. Non-store sales, meaning primarily online sales, are expected to increase between 13.5 and 14 percent. 

Deloitte’s senior U.S. economist Daniel Bachman said income, wage and job growth, along with low debt levels, stock market gains and steady gas prices are all “positive indicators” heading into the holiday season. “Although consumers are watching tensions unfold in the Middle East and Ukraine, the improvement in their economic situation should more than offset the foreign conflicts’ impact on consumer confidence and retail sales,” he said. 

If retail sales for the months of November through January do rise 4 percent or more, this will represent a moderate improvement over the 2013 holiday season, which ended with sales up 2.8 percent year-over-year. 

As online sales continue to climb, Deloitte predicts that the retailers that will do well this holiday season are those that offer a solid omni-channel experience, meaning customers are able to seamlessly access them across laptop, mobile and tablet devices and also have a good experience when they physically come into the store. 

According to Deloitte’s research, 84 percent of shoppers use digital tools before entering a store, and those shoppers make a purchase at a 40 percent higher rate than those who don’t research online first. In addition, digital interactions are expected to influence half of all retail sales this holiday season. 

“Digital customer interactions through both virtual and physical store channels present greater sales opportunities than online or mobile commerce alone,” said Alison Paul, vice president of Deloitte’s retail and distribution sector.  

She said retailers need to focus on having the right functionality, rather than simply just having more functionality, when creating their digital experience this holiday season. For example,  instead of offering their full e-commerce site on a mobile device, retailers could just focus on allowing consumers to compare prices, scan through local assortments and navigate the store. 

“Retailers that better understand how consumers make purchasing decisions then deliver tools that support that process in a way that is consistent and complementary across online, mobile and store channels may have the advantage this holiday season,” Paul said.  

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