Christmas shopping in cyberspace Retail: More people are buying online -- satisfied with security, lured by increasing variety, willing to pay for time-saving convenience.

December 18, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

During trips to the mall, Mary Sharples spends much of her time chasing after her 15-month-old toddler and retrieving whatever the child pulls from the racks. So when it came time to buy Christmas gifts this year, Sharples had another idea. She stayed home.

While her daughter Jenna naps, Sharples shops.

From a computer in her townhouse in Parkville, she hits Toys R Us and Eddie Bauer and Hallmark. She browses for Barbies, checks out book sales at Barnes & Noble and even picked up fly-fishing gear at L. L. Bean for her husband.

She places a shipping order and has some of her finds gift-wrapped with personalized notes -- all electronically. Total holiday bill so far: about $400.

It's Christmas shopping in cyberspace. This season, it's bigger than ever -- and getting its first real test.

"We could easily hit the billion-dollar mark" in online sales, predicted senior analyst Kate Delhagen of Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

That would be nearly triple the $350 million total online sales estimated in the last three months of 1996.

Delhagen said those figures don't include business-to-business sales -- including such expensive items as office computers.

"As a turning point for the nation's online industry, a billion-dollar quarter is significant," she said.

"This is not a fad. This is a habit starting to build and starting to impact the way we buy products."

As rapidly growing numbers of people gain access to the Internet -- including 25.7 million in the United States -- broader selections, easier access and guaranteed credit card safeguards are enticing them to ring up everything from golf clubs to Christmas trees.

As competition heats up, some merchants are promising on-time delivery for last-minute shoppers -- as late as Christmas Eve.

Unlike Christmases past, Delhagen says, "You can pretty much buy anything online you can find in the real world."

You'll likely recognize many more storefronts, too: Gap Inc., J. C. Penney Co. Inc., even Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have set up shop on the World Wide Web.

"As a retailer, we saw the Internet as the next natural expansion of our business," said Susan Boster, marketing director for, which launched its online bookstore in March.

Though online sales account for just a small percentage of Barnes & Noble Inc.'s business, "We see this as the beginning of a growth area. It has crossed the barrier and is spreading out to mass consumers," Boster said.

Many of those are strapped for time. Even though online pricing often is equivalent to retail plus shipping, convenience is often the hook that draws shoppers in and keeps them coming back. Analysts expect pricing to become more competitive in the coming year.

"When I'm at home alone with the kids, it doesn't allow me a lot of time to get out and shop," said Sharples, 35, a former advertising manager who stays home with her baby and a 6-year-old daughter.

"Besides," she added, "the stores are so crowded -- I was in line at one store 45 minutes. I'm now doing more shopping online than I am in the stores."

About a year ago, Donna Logan, a family newsletter publisher, made her first online purchase -- a book she needed for work.

"It was easy, and I could get it fast," said Logan, 47, who saved herself an hour's drive to bookstores in Frederick from her in-home office in Hancock. "Where I live, there's no place to shop."

Since then, she's made more than 200 online purchases, always making sure that she knows the company and that the site uses encrypted coding for credit cards.

This year, she sat at her computer with her infant granddaughter and did her Christmas shopping -- $800 worth. She bought tools for her 23-year-old son, clothes for her granddaughter, clothing from Lands' End and L. L. Bean, and computer software.

"I'm obligated to buy a number of gifts, and this is an easy way to get them," said Logan, who spends 10 to 12 hours a day working. "My time is worth a whole lot more than waiting in lines."

This year's online offerings have helped ease an otherwise overloaded schedule for Kathie Young, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Maryland, who bought compact discs through Music Boulevard.

"My schedule is pretty crazy with finals right now," Young said. "Stores are just not open when I'm available to go shopping."

Internet service providers, from giant America Online Inc. to smaller companies such as Intrepid Technologies Inc., which serves Western Maryland, have recently begun to group online retailers in ways to make shopping easier.

Intrepid, for instance, has organized a holiday shopping guide for even nonsubscribers that includes Web sites such as Sears Roebuck & Co. and Toys R Us and a link for children to e-mail wish lists to Santa.

And about a month ago, AOL unveiled a redesigned shopping channel featuring 100 retailers.

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