CHRISTMAS spending was expected to reach $2 billion before the Boxing Day sales even began, the Australian National Retailers Association said.
But a fast internet connection could prove more valuable in securing a bargain than sharp elbows and an eye for a sale tag, as retailers increasingly move sales online.
David Jones, Myer and Dick Smith were among the retailers who began their sales online as early as Monday.
Food, coffee machines and electronic gadgets such as iPods were the big sellers before Christmas, the chief executive of the association, Margy Osmond, said.
The proportion of online sales had increased, with about 8 per cent of Christmas spending heading overseas.
"The overseas sales figures grow every year," Ms Osmond said. Despite a late surge in spending, Ms Osmond said retailers expected a fairly flat Christmas: "Christmas this year will look solid, but it won't be the exciting kind we'd be hoping for in 2013," she said.
Retailers would be keenly watching what products consumers bought on Wednesday.
Investment in big ticket homeware items could indicate confidence had improved.
A spokesman for Myer, Steve Carey, said Christmas Day in 2011 was one of the store's biggest online trading days for the year, and that it was expecting a similar result this year. "Some people use the website to shop, others use it to browse and come into store at their convenience as they see fit," he said. "The web store is an avenue for people to get ahead of the crowds."
It is estimated that about 1.5 million customers nationwide will visit a Myer store on the first day of the stocktake sale.
David Jones has 80,000 products and 1000 brands on its site. The group executive operations for the David Jones Group, Cate Daniels, said the organisation had revamped the website to cater to the online market.
"There's no doubt we were operating with a legacy system, but that has been totally replaced," she said.
Google Australia said nearly 40 per cent of shopping-related Google searches now come from smartphones or tablets.
It said 2012 would be Australia's biggest online Christmas yet with shopping-related searches increasing by 20 per cent year over year.
Google Australia's Ross McDonald said it was no longer enough for retailers to be online, they needed to be on all screens including smartphones and tablets. Google estimates that among large advertisers only one in three has a mobile-friendly website.
The NSW Minister for Fair Trading, Anthony Roberts, warned consumers that no matter where they did their shopping, they should be aware of their rights.
"If an item is displayed for sale with more than one price tag, you are entitled to purchase the item at the lower price," he said.
"The same applies when an item scans at a different price to that marked on the shelf."
Customers were not automatically entitled to a refund if they were returning an unwanted Christmas gift. Fair Trading received 5206 complaints over refunds in the past year, with more than 1300 recorded between December 1 and February 28, Mr Roberts said.
Fair Trading's ShopSmart app has information on warranties, refunds and online shopping.
The story Bargain hunt begins online as spending nears $2 billion first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.