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Monday, 29 November, 1999, 16:40 GMT
Christmas shopping on the web
online graphic Internet gift-buying has benefits - and downsides

By BBC News Online's Jane Harbidge

The attractions of doing your Christmas shopping from home are obvious: no traipsing around stores, no getting hot and tired, no pressure to shop before closing time, no hassles parking or waiting for a bus - and, best of all, no crowds.

If surveys are to be believed, up to four million Britons will be doing at least some of their Christmas shopping on the internet this year.

More than a third of net users plan to take the online shortcut to tick off their present list, research shows.

The most popular online stocking-fillers will be books, toys and CDs.

crowd Shopping online beats battling through crowds
About 10 million people in the UK have internet access. And since we are all expected to spend an average of 300 each on seasonal presents, it's little wonder that stores are looking forward to seeing their online shopping services pay dividends.

Big businesses have latched on with glee to the opportunities to sell goods, while minimising overheads.

All big supermarkets, most chain stores and a myriad of individual shops now have online services. Other businesses, such as financial companies and newspapers, are even offering portals to shopping worlds.

eToys, for example, has launched in Britain just in time to exploit the Christmas rush, rivalling retailer Toys 'R' Us.

Some sites will even gift-wrap purchases.

Cybershopping
UK spending in 1999: 3bn (estimate)
UK spending by 2001: 9.5bn
1.5m people shop online every month
Source: NOP
And people who like to support charity as they shop can do so online, since 19 charities launched a site selling greetings cards.

The biggest draw of all, for many people, will be the fact that some cyber-purchases are actually cheaper than in bricks-and-mortar stores.

Some sites offer discounts of up to 50% on high street prices.

But forecasters cannot agree how big internet shopping will be in future.

'Trend overestimated'

Jef Harris, an expert on shopping trends and habits, believes the outlook for retailers is far from rosy.

He says chain stores are being forced by trend to move their business online.

But instead of attracting more shoppers, existing customers will spread their money between cybershopping and the high street, raising relative overheads.

He believes predictions of enormous growth are over-optimistic.

jeans Nothing beats being able to pick up the goods
Mr Harris, chairman of research company Harris International Marketing, says: "By the end of 2000, in the UK, I would be astonished if as much as 5% of trade on average is done over the internet."

He believes even personal computer ownership and internet access are overestimated at present.

"You may have a PC or have access but may not use the net frequently," he says. "PC ownership is only about 40% in the UK."

And he adds that not everybody will use the internet for shopping, "or you may have tried it and been frustrated - only a minority of shopping sites are easy to navigate".

Ordering the goods is only the first hurdle. "People may find it's a pain having to be in when goods are delivered," Mr Harris warns.

But there is a silver lining: "What will kick-start it is when digital television becomes widespread. By then, there will be much more consumer confidence and commercial expertise in internet sales. In the US, one of the major barriers to wider net shopping is customer service, which isn't great.

"So I'm not pessimistic - I'm cautious."

presents direct Online shopping can save parents a lot of trouble
His view is backed by a Mintel poll this year, which suggested that only 1% of the adult population - about 450,000 - has spent money online.

But another respected research group, NOP, believes a boom is beginning.

This summer, it found that almost 1.5m people in the UK shopped on the internet in just four weeks, spending 239m - a 44% increase on pre-Christmas numbers last year.

And spending online will more than treble within a couple of years - from about 3bn this year to about 9.5bn by the end of 2001, NOP said.

The researchers say all previous predictions about volumes of online shopping are looking conservative and have already revised forecasts upwards.

Analysts at Business Strategies agree. They say cybershoppers will spend up to 8bn a year by 2004.

Fraud

Another report - by Continental Research - pulled the opposing views together. While 2bn worth of goods have been bought online in a year, it said, few people buy online regularly.

Among those who do have internet access, many still fear they will be victims of credit card fraud.

With some justification: the BBC's Money Programme has revealed just how widespread online financial scams are, although encryption - the process of encoding details - is considered safe.

Experts say that using a website with a secure server should also offer protection. With these sites, your web browser will display a key or lock logo.

Delays

Delays with deliveries are another regular problem that deter cybershoppers from repeating the experience. Even well-known shopping sites are known to have delivery problems.

The long delays leave many paying customers feeling worried and angry.

And internet present shopping can never replace picking the goods up, touching and inspecting them.

For online retailers, however, this is no obstacle: they hope to start a new shopping trend - searching out goods on the high street, then buying them more cheaply online.

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See also:
16 Aug 99 |  The Economy
Hi-tech home shopping enjoys boom
19 Nov 99 |  Business
The growing threat of internet fraud
24 Aug 99 |  The Economy
UK logs on to e-commerce
20 Sep 99 |  The Company File
Internet shopping explosion
29 Sep 99 |  The Company File
Amazon to become online shopping mall
22 Nov 99 |  Business
Online shopping boom
06 Nov 99 |  The Money Programme
The Money Programme Home

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