Despite the putrid economy and the tightening of holiday shopping lists globally, the number of site visits logged in at comparison shopping sites has gone down sharply, some 15 percent lower was recorded during last year's identical period, according to Hitwise. More logically, Hitwise found an even larger increase—25 percent—in the number of visits to Web coupon sites this year. "Consumers are increasingly aware of the coupon and promotion codes that are available online, causing searches for coupons to surge," Hitwise Research Director Heather Dougherty posted on her blog Wednesday (Dec. 17). "Last week, searches for generic coupons (no inclusion of brand) jumped 172 percent from the same week last year and searches for retailer-specific coupons increased 34 percent. During the busy weeks of Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, searches for retailer-specific coupons reached their highest share of searches in the past three years." StorefrontBacktalk.com has been seeing our own unscientific evidence of the soaring use of coupon searches, as any story in our archive that mentions the coupons of any major retailer—even stories from four or more years ago—has been getting sharply increased traffic. A check on the referral links shows, yep, consumers searching for "Borders coupons" or "Target coupons." Such searches were not even noticeable until November. The increased interest in coupons is easy to explain, but the drop in comparison site traffic is much more baffling. It could be that overall traffic is lower, as consumers wait for the last-minute ultra-panicked sales. But the latest overall E-Commerce stats don't support that theory. The latest Chase Paymentech Cyber Holiday Pulse Index, which tracks the daily activity of 25 major E-tailers, from Tuesday (Dec. 16) shows a sharp spending increase recently. "With less than a week before Christmas-delivery deadlines for many merchants, E-Commerce activity has continued to grow. For the full holiday shopping season, sales remain ahead of last year by 15 percent, and transaction count is up 28 percent from last year," Chase reported. "Average ticket remains down by 10.5 percent, but that deficit appears to be shrinking." A more likely explanation for the drop in comparison site traffic is the improved sophistication of search engines, especially Google. That theory also edges close to a semantic distinction, raising the question of what Hitwise labels a price comparison site. If a Google or Yahoo search compares prices, but the site itself does much more than that, would it be included in Hitwise's price comparison statistics? Do the Hitwise stats reveal that fewer consumers are doing price comparisons or that they are merely going to generic search engines to do their comparisons? Hitwise's Dougherty, on her blog posting, didn't address such theories. She did, however, offer her own opinion on the much more easily explained increase in coupon site visits. "Another driver of growth is likely to be the disparaging news in the media about declines in retail sales and plenty of coverage about the need for heavy promotional activity to drive sales," she wrote. "Shoppers may be pulling back spending, but they still love a bargain."