Shoppers willing, eager to go online

Click: Tired of crowds and bustle of the season, more consumers are taking to the Web to buy a surprising selection of products.

December 18, 2003|By Dawn C. Chmielewski | Dawn C. Chmielewski,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The founders of Boo, the European fashion site that came to symbolize dot-com excesses after its collapse in 2000, may have been on to something.

No, we're not talking about burning through $100 million of somebody else's money, jetting around on the Concorde and cavorting in Parisian nightclubs with Brazilian supermodel Gisele. Although that would certainly be fun.

We're talking about consumers' willingness to buy clothes online - and a surprising array of other products, too, such as cosmetics, jewelry, sporting goods and housewares. This is what dot-goners like Boo, eToys.com and FragranceCounter.com died waiting for: the year that Internet shopping goes mainstream.

Now, online holiday shopping mirrors the scene at the mall - only with better hours and no parking hassles. For the first time, women shoppers outnumber men online. They're looking to fill their shopping carts with items other than the stereotypical online fare of books, compact discs and consumer electronics. And they're hunting for bargains.

Just like the real world.

And just like the mall, online retail is getting pretty crowded. About 39 million American households shop online - including the 5 million new shoppers who are expected to join the one-click crowd this year, according to Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

The changing profile of the online shopper, together with their sheer numbers, is leading analysts to offer unusually cheery forecasts for the six-week holiday buying season that began the Friday after Thanksgiving. Analysts project seasonal online sales of $12.2 billion to $16.8 billion - a jump of 20 percent to 42 percent from last year.

That's an increase worth noting - but still a fraction of the $217.4 billion the National Retail Federation expects shoppers to spend this holiday season.

Consumers like Melissa Hourigan couldn't imagine doing holiday shopping any other way.

"I was early into the online shopping thing because I hate going to the mall. Hate it," said Hourigan, whose family moved last year from San Francisco to Denver. "I get so overwhelmed by so many people. It's chaotic. You get stressed getting into the dressing room."

For the third year in a row, she'll shop in front of her home computer to avoid the mall madness, and the obligatory wait at the post office to mail gifts to far-flung relatives in Norway and Germany.

"Last year, I shipped a vest, which weighed almost nothing, and paid $45 to have it shipped," said Hourigan of a gift mailed to her brother-in-law in Norway. "This year I went to REI's site. They have international shipping. I'm so excited. I don't have to worry about paying an extra $40 for shipping. And he'll get it on time. Every year, all his gifts come late. For that, it's just awesome."

More and more consumers are catching on to Hourigan's secret - which helps explain why the pioneering online bookseller, Amazon.com, is promoting the addition of jewelry, sporting goods and gourmet foods to its site.

"People are feeling more and more comfortable to buy online almost everything," said Diego Piacentini, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide retail marketing. "It is the most important piece."

Successful catalog retailers Dell, Lands' End, L.L. Bean and Pottery Barn helped create that comfort zone. Catalogers sold consumers on the convenience of shopping without leaving home and got them accustomed to buying products based only on a glossy photograph, a vivid product description and the retailer's reputation.

Increasingly, consumers who once shopped by catalog are doing so online - taking advantage of the greater selection and targeted e-mail offers. And for the first year, online sales will surpass catalog purchases, said Carrie Johnson, senior analyst for Forrester Research.

Time is on the side of Internet retail. The more hours consumers spend online, the less likely they are to worry about their privacy and security, said Matthew Berk, research director for Jupiter Research in New York.

"Three years ago, I would buy nothing online but books or CDs because I did not trust it," said Melissa Walia, a spokeswoman for DigitalConsumer.org, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., and is a self-described "wired mom."

Walia gradually moved from commodities to cashmere sweaters as she gained confidence in online commerce and learned, through friends, about offbeat destinations like Girlshop, a collection of designer boutiques that sell, say, Julie Brown miniskirts at not-quite-outlet prices.

Part of the shift in buying habits came with the birth of her son, Joseph, who, like most men, is demanding of her time and hates to shop.

"I can do things at night, when I do have some free time," said Walia. "The baby takes up so much of my day. And taking a 7-month-old to a department store is so hard."

Retailers like Yahoo Shopping and Shopping.com have worked to make it easier for consumers to find what they're looking for.

General manager Rob Solomon said Yahoo Shopping refined its search technology to return more relevant results when, say, a parent searches its 50 million product offerings for one of this year's hot toys such as Barbie of Swan Lake.

From a single page, consumers can view the results organized by category - DVD movies, computer games, dolls, tents and clothing, etc. - compare prices, then read customer comments about a merchant before deciding where to buy.

And many online retailers hope to capture more orders by offering free shipping for purchases of $25 or more - as Amazon.com does - or pushing back delivery dates to capture last-minute shoppers. Yahoo, for example, will feature items that can be ordered as late as Dec. 23 for delivery on Christmas Eve.

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