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AOL, Excite eye holiday shoppers

With the holiday season around the corner, Web portals are beginning to take on the shopping masses, touting convenience above all.

With the holiday season around the corner, Web portals are beginning to take on the shopping masses, touting convenience above all.

Excite today released Express Order, a "virtual credit card wallet" that allows users to shop repeatedly on the site but spares them from having to enter their billing information more than once. Excite will incorporate the service on its Holiday Shoppe, a site in its shopping channel that aggregates gift offerings from a variety of merchant partners associated with Express Order.

MasterCard will sponsor the virtual wallet service, and will promote it through television commercials as well as print advertisements in USA Today.

The launch comes as merchants, vendors, and retailers are gearing up for the shopping onslaught of the holiday season. On the Internet, portals and other online services are positioning themselves to become online brokers, and are establishing ways to assist Netizens in shopping online for gifts, through their various networks of partnerships with retailers.

America Online, for example, is rolling out a virtual wallet service of its own, called "AOL Quick Checkout." Similar to Excite's product, the service allows AOL subscribers to purchase gifts from 35 merchant partners, entering billing information only once. In addition, users can store billing information on up to ten different credit cards, and register up to 50 shipping addresses.

Users of the Quick Checkout, which is available only for AOL subscribers, can shop with 35 partners in a specific site, or throughout the ISP's shopping channel, according to an AOL spokesman.

The birth of these "hand-holding" features among portals very likely could motivate more Netizens to purchase gifts online this season, according Julia Pickar, a senior analyst at Zona Research. Since portals already have attracted millions of Web users with their strong branding relationships and aggregation of e-commerce choices, they have many opportunities to develop a more trusted relationship with consumers interested in making purchases online.

"I think that it's a powerful combination to have a brand-name portal and having a [credit card] behind it," said Pickar. "It would probably provide a more comfortable environment for consumers."

Pickar added that, since most holiday shoppers have a targeted shopping "agenda," portals need to guide consumers in the online shopping process, and to assuage their fears about online security issues.

"[While it] seems as though the security issue is less of an issue, it behooves the portal sites to provide the most care and comfort for their users," Pickar said.

Thus far, researchers have projected a rosy picture for portals and e-commerce. Last week, Jupiter Communications predicted that online spending this holiday season will reach $2.3 billion, up from $1.1 billion the previous year.

The marketing research firm also found, however, that most shopping conducted online is for personal purposes rather than for gifts. The research firm noted that e-commerce companies need to ramp-up their marketing efforts in order to turn so-called self-shoppers into gift-shoppers.

In addition, Visa USA today released a study predicting that 46 percent of Internet users will purchase gifts online, citing convenience as the Web's main advantage over brick-and-mortar shopping.

In an indication of the Web's appeal to home shoppers, the study found also that 60 percent of Net shoppers have shopped in their pajamas.