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Online window-shopping

November 25, 2005

HERE'S A NOVEL EXPLANATION for why shopping malls are mobbed today: People are looking for things to order online when they go back to work. Although Black Friday is a peak day for local merchants, Web retailers say their surge comes Monday. Much of that activity comes from people taking advantage of their employers' high-speed Internet connections, an important asset when loading Web pages filled with pictures of sweaters or table saws.

Online shopping still has a long way to go before it matches the popularity of buying from local stores. The National Retail Federation projects almost $440 billion in sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas, more than 20 times sales predictions for online shops. And many Internet users remain cool to the idea of buying goods online because they worry about their credit card number being stolen -- even though the protection is at least as good online as it is in the mall.

But online commerce is growing much faster than "brick-and-mortar" retailing, with sales projected to climb more than 20% this year. The increase is most visible at websites such as Shopzilla.com and PriceGrabber.com, which let users search for products from multiple online retailers at the same time. Comparison sites are one of the advantages to shopping online, offering a free service that just can't be found on Main Street. Some Web retailers also offer ways to tag items with electronic notes and to read recommendations made by fellow shoppers.

Such tools, rather than unique products, are key to the rising popularity of online shopping. The items most frequently sought online, judging by recent searches at the Lycos website, are the same types of things one might find at a local department store or toy shop: game consoles, iPods, dolls, Lego bricks and Thomas the Tank Engine trains.

This overlap is another reflection of the lingering reluctance of some Web users to buy online, even if they like to search for and compare items on the Web. Los Angeles-based PriceGrabber.com says its site typically generates $6 of sales offline for every dollar in sales on the Web. With that in mind, Google recently added a feature on its Froogle site that lets people find nearby outlets for the products they're searching for, as well as enabling sellers to pitch their goods to local shoppers.

With high-speed Internet connections proliferating in homes, the number of workers shopping at the office Monday may dwindle even as the amount of money spent online leaps. Who knows? Maybe some year soon people will actually get something done on their first day back from the long holiday weekend.

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