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Net shopkeepers optimistic

As the holidays approach, Net merchants are already noticing an increase in business from last year's fourth quarter.

Expectations are running high, not least among online retailers, for this holiday season to shove e-commerce into the mainstream.

"Everybody's looking for this to be an e-commerce Christmas," said Randy Whiting, chief executive of trade group CommerceNet.

Estimates vary widely CNET's holiday buying guide as to how much consumers will spend online this year, but nearly everybody concludes that the numbers will be up--way up. Jupiter Communications estimates that consumers will spend $2.3 billion on holiday gifts, up from $1.1 billion last year. And Forrester Research predicts that online shoppers will spend a total of $3.5 billion in the fourth quarter.

Retailers say they are already noticing what a difference a year makes. "Just in the last week, we've really felt the heat," said Robert Olson, cofounder and chief operating officer of wine and gift merchant Virtual Vineyards.

About half the orders Virtual Vineyards has received over the past several days were for holiday gifts, Olson said, a ratio he expects to grow to about 60 percent over the next few weeks.

"And we're getting some really big orders this year," he added. "Some people are spending $1,000 on gifts. I wish I had friends like that." He predicted holiday sales would amount to three to four times those of last year.

As with traditional retail, the holidays represent a huge portion of online yearly sales. "It's not unusual to get 30 to 40 percent of [annual] volume in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Jeff Killen, chief operating officer of Barnesandnoble.com.

So do all the rosy projections mean the online public has fully embraced e-commerce? Not quite, but it's getting there, said Darryl Peck, chief executive of computer vendor Cyberian Outpost.

"This is the beginning of phase two of online shopping," he said. "I think we're still a few years away from it being a mainstream thing."

Still, he noted, the difference from last year is stark. "Last year, it was all just the early adopters--most people were still terrified of it," Peck said.

What has changed? "Some Holiday shoppers expected to flock online of the myths that had discouraged consumers are rapidly being dispelled," said Jim Coane, president of N2K, which runs the popular Music Boulevard online music store.

Namely, he said, people are far more comfortable with online security and privacy than they were a year ago. For one thing, there have been few if any horror stories about credit card rip-offs, he said. For another, online commerce has gotten so much attention that people feel compelled to try it.

"You can't pick up a paper, turn on a TV, or listen to a radio without hearing stories about online shopping and how convenient it is," Coane said.

And, thanks to all the "media hype," he said, people feel left out if they haven't shopped online.

"Last year, if you didn't have an email address, you weren't with it. This year, if you're not shopping online, you're not with it," he said.