TORONTO - Canadians will likely hit the malls in droves on Boxing Day, as they always do, but a growing number of consumers are changing their shopping habits and making purchases from home.

While it's not an entirely new trend that more people are shopping online, retail analyst Wendy Evans says the growing popularity of social media networks has made more Canadians comfortable with buying from online sources.

"It's a really big shift this year, but it's been happening over the last 18 months or so," she said.

Evans credits the change partly to Twitter, the short-text portal that became a household name in 2009, and the recession, which convinced many shoppers to use technology to their advantage.

In some sense, Twitter has put power into the hands of retailers because now they can market sales directly to consumers who subscribe to their message feeds without paying for advertisements or flyers, she said.

Fellow social networking website Facebook lets users to become "fans" of their favourite retailers and receive alerts about upcoming sales.

Electronics retailer Future Shop says this year it expects five-and-a-half million Boxing Day shoppers on its website, which it calls a "steady increase" from last year.

But "as this trend to online continues, one will eventually see less traffic in the stores," Evans said.

This year, analysts expect that despite the uptick in online purchases, stores will still be packed with shoppers hunting for the best deals. However, more of them will be equipped with technology to aid in their search.

The popularity of smartphones has skyrocketed in the past year, and a growing number of Canadians are expected to comparison shop on their BlackBerry or iPhone while standing in the mall, and walk out of one store if a competitor's website shows better prices.

In one sense, that will make bargain hunting easier, but shoppers could still have trouble tracking down items they actually want to buy.

"Consumers are going to find less inventory come Boxing Day," said Daniel Baer, a retail analyst at Ernst and Young.

"Coming out of a very weak retail season last holiday, more retailers were conservative and cautious. They reduced their inventory levels... but they also promoted earlier to ensure that they got their fair share of the scarce consumer dollars."

Early promotions might have backfired for retailers because some shoppers are postponing their purchases until after Christmas. Half-price deals aren't as impressive if consumers are convinced that deeper discounts will turn up later, according to David Bassuk, managing director in the retail practice of AlixPartners, a global business advisory firm.

Toronto resident Miguel Martin-Garcia counts himself among the shoppers who are holding off until after Christmas to start their holiday shopping.

"Most of my family lives across the continent so there's no real point in rushing to the malls and buying them stuff since I'm only going to have it delivered anyway," he said.

"It makes sense to wait until Boxing Day when everything is going to be somewhat cheaper."

Martin-Garcia, 32, first started delayed his Christmas shopping last year when his parents and other relatives moved to Calgary and the surrounding area.

Last Christmas, he only bought a DVD and a box of chocolates for his co-workers before the holidays. Everything else, he bought after Christmas.

"My nephews... already have a lot of Christmas presents at this time of year. I'm sure they're not going to notice one coming in early January," he said.

"As for my family, we're all grownups. I don't think a particular day matters that much to us. As long as we remember each other."