We all know the 4th quarter was a tough one for retailers. Despite the holidays, the global economic crisis had consumers pinching pennies and retailers were forced to discount heavily in an effort to entice them to spend.

Some online retailers such as Amazon.com reported ‘record‘ holidays but many weren’t quick to quantify what those ‘records‘ meant to the bottom line and according to new numbers, Q4 2008 online sales in the United States were disappointing.

According to the US Census Bureau, there was a 5.7% drop in online retail sales in the United States between Q3 2008 and Q4 2008. Total retail sales dropped 7.8% during the same period, showing that ecommerce held up better than offline commerce but still not as much as some had hoped for. Year-over-year, online retail sales were down 4.9% by the Census Bureau’s count.

These numbers were adjusted for seasonal variation but not price changes.

Obviously, the disappointing numbers don’t come as a surprise given the circumstances everyone was aware of. Perhaps the biggest question to be answered: how will online retailers do going forward without a boost from holiday shopping?

Online retailers are going to need to step up their games and fortunately, the industry as a whole appears to be on solid footing when it comes to customer satisfaction.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is put together by the University of Michigan and ecommerce partner ForeSee Results, online retailers as a whole received an aggregate score of 82 out of 100, higher than online brokerages and travel operators, the other online sectors the Index looked at.

On an individual company basis, Newegg edged out Amazon.com for the top score (88 to 86, respectively) while eBay’s score plummeted to 78. Certainly not good for eBay, but interestingly, despite its drop, eBay still scored higher than online travel operators. The sector’s aggregate score was 75.

As times get tougher, it’s natural to expect that online retail sales will continue to come under pressure and the winners (and survivors) will be those who excel operationally and deliver high levels of customer satisfaction.