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Online shoppers jam virtual aisles

Consumers spent 22 percent more online in the holiday quarter compared with the same period a year earlier, a report says.

Online retailers racked up an estimated $18.4 billion in sales in the fourth quarter, 22 percent more than they did during the same period a year earlier.

Those figures, released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Commerce, confirm numerous reports indicating that shoppers are turning to the Web in ever-greater numbers, especially around the holidays.

The 2004 holiday season attracted about 17.7 million new online shoppers, according to a report from Jupiter Research. The research company predicts that even more people will log on to shop this year, fueling a 20 percent rise in e-commerce sales in 2005.

The Commerce Department report indicates that the Web is gaining a larger share of the overall retail market, which is expanding more slowly. Total retail sales in the United States grew only 8.2 percent in the fourth quarter, reaching an estimated $938.5 billion.

Fourth-quarter e-commerce growth was on par with growth for the whole year, which was 23.5 percent, the agency said. Total online sales in 2004 reached $69.2 billion, just shy of 2 percent of all retail sales in the country.

The Commerce Department gathers data from about 11,000 retail companies for its estimates. The department counts as e-commerce all orders placed over the Internet, extranets, e-mail or electronic data interchange networks. It excludes purchases from online travel services, financial brokers and dealers or ticket sales agencies.