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Tech Industry

The online side of Sears

The icon of American shopping launches an e-commerce site, joining the ranks of retailing giants Wal-Mart, Bloomingdale's, and Disney.

Sears, the icon of American shopping, today launched its first e-commerce site, joining the ranks of retailing giants such as Wal-Mart, Disney, Bloomingdale's, and Barnes & Noble, among others, in offering online shopping.

The high-tech store's wares will be decidedly low-tech: more than 3,500 Craftsman power and hand tools, one of the retailer's most popular product lines. "The Craftsman Internet site gives our fans not only another way to purchase, but also another convenient way to stay in touch with our evolving line of power and hand tools," said Andy Ginger, Craftsman brand director, in a statement.

Analysts say Sears's decision to launch an e-commerce site is another sign of the market's potential. Not only are Internet companies such as sprouting up, but also traditional "brick and mortar" retailers such as Sears are getting into the act. In addition, catalog companies such as L.L. Bean and Lands' End are launching e-commerce sites. Online shopping revenue could reach nearly $7 billion by the year 2000, according to some estimates.

Sears's online customers are required to create a user ID and password, as well as provide billing and shipping information. They can pay with Sears Card, Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover.

A 2-horsepower router (the one used in woodworking, not as hardware on the Internet) costs $97.99, for example.

Wal-Mart, which sells products in 24 categories from apparel to toys, lists items such as a Disney Ursula doll (the villain from The Little Mermaid) for $98.86, or an Avail P-166 computer for $996.

While shoppers can save money by going online, they also have to pay shipping charges.

The sites are growing in popularity, but they still face obstacles. Many users, for example, still are worried about providing credit card information online. In addition, some complain about delays in accessing the site during peak periods.

The companies respond that they are trying to beef up their networks to handle more traffic, and they also typically promise not to share a customer's information with others without their permission.

Another downside to online shopping, at least from the retailers' standpoint, is that it could cannibalize their retail store sales. Many retailers see e-commerce as inevitable, however. It also is a low-priced distribution medium for them.

In addition, some retailers have been forced to close stores in recent years as part of a cost-cutting bid, so e-commerce offers a new moneymaking opportunity. It also can supplement their catalog businesses.