A billion dollars in Internet sales to consumers is not out of the question
this holiday season, as sales are spurred on by greater confidence in the Net's safety
and the arrival of mainstream retailers, according to some e-commerce analysts.
"I would not be surprised to see it pass the billion-dollar mark [in the
particularly if merchants do a good job with marketing and delivery of
products in the next few weeks," said Kate Delhagen, electronic
retailing analyst with Forrester
Research. Her official estimate is more conservative, however: $750
million in online
sales in the fourth quarter, excluding cars and real estate, pushing the
total to $2.4 billion for the year.
Jupiter Communications is even more
bullish about online sales. E-commerce director Nicole Vanderbilt thinks
online merchants will sell $1.1 billion in goods and services this holiday
season, 44 percent of her projected $2.6 billion in sales for the year.
But consultancy Ernst & Young sounds
comparatively like Scrooge, estimating consumer Internet sales of $220
million this season.
Analysts attribute more online holiday shopping this season to a variety of
factors: greater comfort with the Net's security and privacy protections,
the growing number of Internet users, and hype.
"The marketing hype is huge," said Erica Rugullies, e-commerce analyst at
Giga Information Group.
The rollout of PCs that cost less than $1,000 also may provide a boost to
online shopping, said Genni Combes, analyst at brokerage Hambrecht & Quist. "You're seeing very
strong sales of PCs, and we suspect consumers are buying PCs and going
straight to the Internet," Combes said.
Another driving force is the move by mainstream retailers
onto the Net. Sears and The Gap opened Web storefronts in time for
the hoped-for holiday rush, while Macy's
and others added promotions.
Traffic on the Macy's online shopping site has quadrupled in the past three
weeks. "We expect the traffic to peak on the site in the next ten to 15
days," said Kim Miller, Internet coordinator for Macy's. "We expect it to drop
off a bit after the first of the year."
End and other catalogers refreshed their sites for the holidays, and
Web merchants such as bookseller Amazon.com and auction houses Onsale and eBay are rolling out
The ease of purchasing isn't the only benefit of online shopping. Consumers can
also take advantage of the surge of comparison-shopping services such as Compare.net and Sharpshopper.com as well as "shopping
agents" such as Excite's
"You can do a lot of comparison-shopping in a very short period of
time, even if you don't complete the transaction over the Net," said David
Locke, analyst at Volpe Brown Whelan,
adding that traffic alone can drive revenues without actual sales.
Many Internet retailers, however, aren't eager to be compared head-to-head
to other Web storefronts, especially if price is the only variable. That's
why analysts and online retailers such as Lands' End are stressing convenience.
"Convenience is the biggest thing," said Ron Frey, Lands' End Internet
business manager. "We have real-time inventory checking from our Web site
on all products, so customers will know if everything they order is in
The online sites also add creative features to lure shoppers.
"We try to make Lands' End.com more than a shopping site," Frey added,
noting features such as free electronic Christmas cards, a Santa mask printout
page for kids, interviews with a reindeer farmer, and an upcoming "Santa
Online stores hope that a successful holiday season will enable them to
attract customers the rest of the year. "We would like to develop a strategy that
results in consistent sales all year long," said Susan Finkelstein, vice president of special services at Macy's.
For example, Macy's is considering offering holiday shoppers a preview of
next year's merchandise when they shop this season.
The bulk of online shoppers tend to be repeat customers. A study by Ernst &
Young found that 41 percent of consumers who already have bought products
on the Net plan to shop online during the holidays. About 55 percent of
Amazon.com's customers have purchased books from the online bookseller
before, said company chief executive Jeff Bezos.
"If we can get someone to try our site, the chances are good they'll come
back and use it again," Bezos said.
If that holds true for other online merchants as well, this holiday could
be a catalyst for more widespread acceptance of online shopping. "A broader
range of people have now realized this is a trend, not a fad," said Scott
Smith, analyst with Current