The survey found that merchants believe online business is better suited to withstand an economic downturn than physical stores or catalogs, though they acknowledge challenges for both.

The companies reported scaling back hiring and their increasingly expensive search marketing programs, which include paying for top billing in the results consumers see in their Web searches. Online merchants whose business is beating expectations will likely fuel much of the e-commerce investments in the coming months, the survey found.

Developing social media marketing requires some investment in personnel, he said, but many merchants see big opportunities to spread a positive message about their brand for a relatively low cost.

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