Offline retailers were disappointed by holiday sales, but the same might not be true in the burgeoning online retail market.
Although hard numbers on holiday sales are difficult to come by so soon after Christmas, "veteran" Web retailers say holiday sales roughly doubled from 1996, and newer online merchants say December sales spurted past the month-to-month growth they have come to expect.
"While everybody is dissecting offline sales, online is probably on its own course," said online retail analyst Emily Green of Forrester Research. "Online retailing is still experiencing growth from the number of participants who are still trying it out. It's on its own curve."
Forrester was among the research firms that predicted online shopping in the fourth quarter might top $1 billion, but neither Forrester nor Jupiter Communications have begun dissecting actual sales for the holiday season.
Among the best results came from J. Crew, which saw sales of trendy clothing climb to almost ten times last year's holiday sales, according to new media director Brian Sugar.
"We planned the business aggressively for online and we exceeded [plans] for the fourth quarter and for the year," said Judy Neuman, an Eddie Bauer divisional vice president. "We at least planned to double our business, and more in some months."
Fueling Bauer's Web boom were sales of more expensive items, such as outerwear.
"Last year, people were buying the $30 items, one at a time, to try to see if it works. This year, particularly people who came back, were doing aggressive shopping, buying multiple items and bigger-ticket items," Neuman said. "And we had a slew of new people who hadn't shopped online."
On AOL, where Eddie Bauer was one of the top five brands for holiday sales, online orders in the two weeks after Thanksgiving were double the number for the same period a year earlier, as reported previously. But the online service has not released more updated statistics.
Veteran online merchant 1-800-Flowers said online use this holiday season more than doubled over 1996. The average Web site shopper was 39 years old, five years older than last year, and the number of women shoppers increased.
1-800-Flowers also said corporate gift-giving nearly doubled. Eight percent of its phone customers referred to the company's Web site, indicating buyers used it as an electronic catalog.
Fewer than one-third of consumers worry about credit card security, 1-800-Flowers said, compared to almost 75 percent last year, a finding consistent with Eddie Bauer's experience.
Bauer's Neuman said privacy concerns have replaced security worries as a consumer interest. Bauer won't share online customer data with its catalog division without a buyer's permission.
Among upscale users of push publisher PointCast, nearly half--more than 2,000 of nearly 4,500 respondents--bought something over the Net, many for the first time.
In addition to perennially popular books, flowers, and computers, PointCast viewers bought baby gym mats, designer apparel, coffee makers, audio gear, and specialty foods.
Many Internet merchants were tight-lipped about sales figures, although small online bookseller BookServe.com said December sales have doubled over last year. The two biggest online booksellers, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, both declined to release any Internet sales data.
Ron Frey, Internet business manager for retailer Lands' End, also said online sales beat expectations.
"Our [free] Christmas cards were a big hit with customers. Of all the Christmas promotions, it was by far biggest draw," Frey said. And Lands' End has not been swamped by returns, the bane of merchants in the physical world, although Frey said catalog returns tend to trickle in through January.
Two online auction houses hyped their sites as a way to get cash out of those unwanted holiday gifts.
"What do you do with those gifts that you don't know what to do with? Sell them online on Exchange," said Stephanie Elkins, publicist for Onsale, which runs Exchange as a place for individuals to auction off items online.
New listings today were up 28 percent over December 23, she said, with computer hardware listings jumping 34 percent.
"A lot of people get new computers for Christmas, so what do you do with the old one?" Elkins said, speculating that some went to Onsale.
Another auction site, eBay, dubbed its post-Christmas personal auctions the "Great White Elephant Sale." Among the items that showed up under the tree but were not on a wish list were Nanook the Husky Beanie Baby, a large puffer fish, and a black leather "Cat O' Nine Tails" whip.
AOL and 1-800-Flowers reported a shift in online buying patterns. While computer software and hardware were the top sellers a year ago, apparel climbed to No. 1 and books to No. 3 this year. Also popular again this year for AOL shoppers were carryover categories food, flowers, music, and toys. Flower arrangements from 1-800-Flowers were the best-selling items on AOL.
SpeedServe founder Michael Mason, who runs book site BookServe and launched VideoServe.Com in time for the holidays, said he sold 1,100 videos off the Web site, many from a "top 50 titles under $25" promotion.
"Consumers using the Internet for shopping really have high expectations, not like what we've seen in past when it was more experimental," Mason said. He said many orders were sent to addresses other than those of the buyers, an indication the items were bought as gifts.
For Web retailers, the trick will be to get Christmas buyers to turn online shopping into a habit throughout the year, and many are already working on that challenge.
Lands' End hopes to make shopping more interactive, letting shoppers match different ties with different shirts, for example.
"We want to let the customer be the driver," said Frey. "The more we do that, the more we'll get them as repeat buyers."
SharpShopper.com a reference site for consumer electronic gear, saw traffic quadruple in December, as it had in the two previous months, according to chief executive Court Lorenzini of Nth Dimenson, its parent firm.