Online shopping is expected to be one of the bright spots in retailing this holiday season, growing five times as fast as overall gift spending.
It's still a thin slice of the holiday retail pie, however, maybe 5 percent or 6 percent by some estimates. The social aspects of shopping, especially this time of year, are deeply ingrained in our memories - and our old Christmas movies - and often seem to outweigh the frustrations of finding a scarce clerk or parking space.
For all of its cold, calculated efficiency, the Internet can't replicate that. So the question remains: Will online shopping ever be more than a niche?
Absolutely, some experts say. With advances in security and consumer familiarity helping allay fears about posting credit-card information online, retailers and technology developers are working to solve other obstacles that keep people from buying online.
"It's coming into the mainstream, and every year it's getting bigger," said Chuck Davis, chief executive officer of BizRate.com, a Los Angeles online comparison-shopping site. "The wallet share is shifting from off-line to online."
Some might have laughed at that notion a few years ago, when the fledgling world of online shopping was riddled with problems. Web sites were slow. Shipping was expensive. Merchandise selection was skimpy. Many consumers were worried about Internet thieves swiping their credit-card information.
But retailers, including some who once scoffed at the idea of building a Web presence, have become more knowledgeable about ways to attract customers. Many offer free shipping or sales promotions they wouldn't usually offer during the holidays.
Walmart.com offers 97-cent shipping on toys and video games. The 4-year-old Web site of the world's largest retailer offers 1 million items online, compared with 110,000 to 120,000 in a typical store, said spokeswoman Amy Colella.
Several sites, such as online toy seller eToys.com, are promoting Web specials for the day after Thanksgiving, pitching them as calmer alternatives to "Black Friday," one of the most frenzied shopping days of the year. Some post promotions specifically on Thanksgiving Day, which last year emerged as a surprisingly popular day - or evening - for online shopping after the leftovers were wrapped and relatives had departed.
Yahoo Shopping, a self-described "virtual shopping mall" with more than 50 million products from about 200,000 merchants, has a feature that alerts users when the price drops on an item.
Many retailers have improved search options to make it easier for shoppers to weed through vast inventories and to comparison shop. Previously, a shopper wanting the perfect pair of jeans had to click through pages of photos. Now, searches can be narrowed by style, color, brand, retailer and a host of other characteristics.
"Most retailers are in a constant flow of upgrades and introduction of new products," said Patti Freeman Evans, an analyst with Jupiter Research, an online consulting firm. "Many have used the metrics to understand where consumers have been running into difficulty and made it better."
Clothes - which account for about 5 percent of retail spending, according to the U.S. Census Bureau - have posed a conundrum for online shopping because they can't be tried on before the purchase over the Internet. But some Web sites now allow shoppers to "try" clothes on a virtual mannequin after they plug in measurements.
"The technology is catching up finally, and it's becoming a much better way for people to find what they're looking for," said Rob Solomon, vice president of Yahoo Shopping.
As high-speed Internet connections have become more common, consumers find the experience less frustrating, so they are staying online longer and, consequently, buying more. Broadband subscribers spend more time shopping online than do people with dial-up connections, according to BizRate.com.
The peak online shopping season is the 10 to 14 days before Christmas. According to surveys, many people buy during their lunch or break period from their workplace, where the high-speed lines are often faster than at home.
"When you work a lot of hours especially on your computer, it's the easiest thing to do," said Mollie Spilman, who prefers it to dragging her two young children to the mall.
Spilman, senior vice president of marketing for Advertising.com in Baltimore, said that retailers have made it easier to search for merchandise on their Web sites and that many offer online specials. She recently brought five holiday chocolate gifts and got 10 percent off her order and free shipping because she ordered before Thanksgiving.
"I like it because it has instant gratification without having to leave the chair," said Chuck Donofrio, chief executive officer of Baltimore ad agency Carton Donofrio Partners, who spent 45 minutes at his desk Wednesday buying Christmas presents for his wife.
But online shopping isn't immune from the economic pressures that face retailing overall. Forrester Research Inc. expects online shopping to grow about 20 percent this holiday season, down from 31 percent growth last year. Holiday spending overall is expected to increase 4.5 percent after growing 5.2 percent last year.
Carrie A. Johnson, who wrote the Forrester report, said that as the Web becomes more mainstream, it is suffering from some of the same issues as brick-and-mortar stores. Because of sluggish second- and third-quarter sales, Johnson predicts many retailers will have less to spend on online promotions.
Others expect online shopping to be viewed less as a novelty or luxury, as has happened with other popular technologies.
"I believe online shopping will become more than a niche shopping channel," said Jeffrey Grau, a senior analyst for eMarketer, a New York firm that tracks Internet sales.