As the clock ticks down to those final shopping days before Christmas, consumers begin the tradition of flooding malls, crowding downtowns, and jamming catalog phone lines, all to get that last gift.
But this year, they're also flipping on their PCs and firing up their modems as more and more go online for their holiday shopping.
A new survey from the Yankee Group in Boston predicts that $800 million will be spent online this year during the holiday season, out of a total $2.74 billion spent online. And Media Metrix, the PC Meter company, reports that the number of visitors to shopping Web sites has grown by more than 54 percent compared to a year ago.
"Companies are marketing to the mass-market consumer, not just the technically savvy," said Melissa Bane, senior analyst at the Yankee Group. "Some of the more aggressive retailers are starting to get how to market online. And some of the established Internet brands, like Amazon.com, have expanded their advertising to traditional channels."
One of the mainstream brands aggressively pursuing the online media is recreation and outdoors outfitter Eddie Bauer, based in Redmond, Wash.
The company, which sells its clothes through both retail stores and catalogs, opened up an online shop last August. This year, its Web site is not only getting more customers, but those customers are buying more items than they have in the past, said Judy Neuman, divisional vice president of interactive media.
"Last year, online shopping was so new, people were buying maybe one item at a time," she said. "This year, they're doing major shopping. We're seeing multiple items per order."
Neuman agreed the Eddie Bauer's customers may have had an easier transition to online shopping, since they were already accustomed to doing purchasing remotely. But she said the Web still has much to offer consumers that even a catalog can't.
For one, the site has been testing a new service that lets visitors design a 3-D version of their bedroom, then outfit the room with furnishings and linens from the company's catalogs. Bauer hopes to expand the program -- done through a partnership with iDream Software LLC -- to apparel.
"When we can get to the place where added value is easy, with no download time, no plugins, that's when we'll see another big surge," she said.
But for some more Internet-centric firms, the surge is already here. Dell Computer Corp. CEO Michael Dell recently said that his company had already hit $3 million a day annually in Internet sales, and was seeing holiday surges up to $6 million a day.
At Amazon.com, one of the best-known success stories in Internet shopping, sales are up compared to last year, said David Risher, senior vice president for product development.
The online book seller is also trying to provide a "value-add" to draw in customers for the holidays, in this case by setting up a gift center where users can find tips for stocking stuffers, gifts for children, and the like. The company will also let you send a gift certificate via E-mail, for those who leave their shopping to the very last minute.
Risher said consumers are feeling safer about shopping online.
"There's a critical-mass factor happening, and a growing sense of safety. For all the hype, when you come down to it, there's little reason to worry about security," he said.
Neuman agreed, saying that while last year's consumers were worried about safety, this year the big issue is privacy. And the fact that there hasn't been a major, publicized fraud incident, said Bane, has calmed some consumer fears.