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Shoppers are stirring with even a mouse

Free shipping is luring throngs of holiday shoppers to the Internet as merchants compete for their business.

By DAVE GUSSOW
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 10, 2002


It's easy to start a stampede with online shoppers this holiday season. Just say "free shipping."

Up to half of online shoppers surveyed in daily tracking say free shipping clinched the deal, according to BizRate.com, a shopping portal and comparison price site that has been tracking sales daily. That was up about 10 percentage points from a week earlier.

"Merchants are fighting each other to earn the customer's business, so free shipping deals have become rampant," said Chuck Davis, BizRate's president and chief executive.

Davis counted more than 1,000 special offers such as rebates and more than 140 free shipping offers on his site last Tuesday. Since Thanksgiving, that combination has fueled robust online sales that surpass comparable periods from a year ago by as much as 40 percent.

America Online reported sales of $1.09-billion between Nov. 29 and Dec. 1, up 26 percent from a year ago. By Monday afternoon, Amazon.com's "Delight-O-Meter" counted almost 39-million items ordered since Nov. 1.

"Shoppers are telling us this year that they're looking for bargains," said Jennifer Betka, vice president of AOL commerce. They also want convenience, so AOL this week will unveil a feature where shoppers can find all free offers, discounts and other promotional deals from its more than 200 retailing partners (keyword: holiday savings week).

Shoppers may have to do more work to get the best deals, though. Merchants are posting their coupons on sites such as DealNews.com, which forces shoppers to go to more than one site to find the best deal. And online prices have increased about 6 percent this year, compared with an 0.8 increase last year.

An additional element this year is time. The shopping season has six fewer days than last year, and BizRate expected Monday to be the peak day for sales. And, of course, online shoppers have to figure delivery time into their purchases.

Many of the free shipping offers are for standard delivery, which can take several days from the time an order is placed. Expedited shipping, such as overnight, usually costs extra. And free shipping may come with online fine print, such as having to buy more than one item or spend a minimum amount to qualify.

The holiday season is a test for the online retailing industry, which experienced its first decline in sales in the third quarter over a year earlier, according to Forrester Research. Its report cited the general economy and uncertainty about war as the culprits and noted that robust business at just two sites, Amazon and eBay, prevented the overall sales from being far worse.

The industry seems to have overcome the frenetic image it earned before the dot-com bust, when poorly designed sites frustrated consumers, virtual shopping carts balked, possible security problems with personal and credit card information scared buyers and on-time delivery became an oxymoron.

Shoppers appear to be more comfortable with online shopping now, according to various surveys: About 71 percent of U.S. Internet users plan to buy at least some of their holiday gifts online, and they'll spend an average of $235 each online.

And in a remarkable change in demographics, 63 percent of online shoppers are women this year. Four years ago, 62 percent of online shoppers were men. That shift "is testament to the mass acceptance of shopping online," BizRate's Davis said.

Top-selling categories so far have been familiar: computers, electronics, home and garden, and toys, though apparel is becoming a popular choice.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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