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Many More Consumers Shop Online

December 22, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ While last-minute shoppers frantically crowd the malls, Marguerite Smalls sits at her office desk and with a click of the mouse ticks off the gifts on her list.

Videos for her daughter from The Disney Store. Clothes for others from Spiegel. Maybe some shoes for herself.

``I just don’t like standing in line,″ said Smalls of Greenbelt, Md.

This holiday season, more and more shoppers are heading to the Internet: They’re expected to spend $2.3 billion online or more than double last year’s $1.1 billion, according to the research firm Jupiter Communications.

Although that remains just a fraction of total holiday spending, the desire to avoid crowds and dissatisfaction with customer service is leading to more Internet shopping just as it previously boosted catalog shopping, consumer experts believe.

``People are always talking about shopping in that tone of voice, like, ’How do I beat the system?,‴ said Mona Doyle, author of the Shopper Report, which surveys consumers about the retail industry.

Not all shoppers are comfortable with the idea, however.

``I’ll never buy online again,″ said Daniel Ho, a student in Los Angeles who purchased a product for his computer on the Internet and eagerly awaited its promised two-day delivery.

Two weeks later, the item arrived, looking far different from what was touted on the Web. And it came with a notice that the company did not issue full refunds.

``The company told me you have to read what’s in the manual _ not the specifications on the Web,″ Ho said.

After much prodding by Ho and the Better Business Bureau, the company finally agreed to take the item back. But Ho still wasted $20 on shipping. Now he figures it’s just as easy to go to the store.

``Then I can return it,″ he said.

To avoid such problems, experts recommend that consumers stick with stores they already know or look for signs that they can trust the business.

Among those signs are a site’s privacy statement, which explains how the company will use any information it gathers, such as the customer’s address.

Consumers also need to look for clues that the site is secure before typing in credit card numbers.

``A lot of people who have never (shopped online) before have heard rumors, but don’t know what they’re supposed to be afraid of,″ said Anne Jennings, marketing communications manager at TRUSTe, a nonprofit group that offers a third-party oversight program.

About 400 companies carry the TRUSTe seal, which tells customers they have some recourse in disputes with the business.

The business bureau started giving out its own online seal in late November. Staff members check out the physical location of businesses with Web sites to make sure the company exists and is legitimate.

As the number of shoppers grows, more well-known and bigger stores have begun setting up Internet shop.

Kmart leapt onto the online retail bandwagon early in the summer, and just a few weeks ago added a holiday site that targets ``busy career moms in search of more time-efficient ways to buy gifts.″

Overall, 26 percent of retailers have sites on the Internet, up from 8 percent just two years ago, according to a National Retail Federation survey.

Companies that pioneered Internet shopping continually search for ways to offer convenience.

The Internet’s leading book merchant _ amazon.com _ gives browsers a chance to both shop and to send the gift in cyberspace.

The consumer selects the book, then enters the e-mail address of the recipient. The Web site sends a message to the person the gift is intended for, asking where it should be sent.

``People love the convenience. You can do your shopping in your pajamas, by the fire, with a glass of wine,″ said company spokeswoman Kay Dangaard.

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