Girl power hits e-commerce

A survey released Friday predicts that the number of women who plan to shop online this holiday season will jump to nearly six times the number who shopped last year.

The increase will mean that men, who made up 72 percent of online buyers last year, will only account for 58 percent of buyers this year, according to the Holiday Survey conducted by Harris Interactive, a division of polling firm Harris Black International. "Shopping is strongly related to how long you've been online. Women have reached the point where they've had time to experiment and are ready to shop," said Ben Black, director of business development at Harris Interactive. "The key factor for women is convenience, and the Web can make their life easier. The pressure of Christmas shopping and their rising comfort level can close that (gender) gap."

The increase in women shoppers could signal a change in what products sell well online. "We sort of waited out the period when all the shoppers were men, because there wasn't a lot of business for us to do at that point," said Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Nordstrom.com "There needs to be a certain number of women interested in shopping in a given medium, otherwise it's not economical. Men are great, but women drive the thing."

The Harris study, which questioned 5802 online users about their holiday buying intentions, had some good news and some bad news for e-commerce players. The good news is that there should be plenty more people out there ready to shop. More than 32 percent of those surveyed said they planned to purchase at least one product online over the holidays. By comparison, 8.3 percent of the online population actually bought something online in the 1998 Christmas season.

But there are still some concerns. Of those not planning to shop online, 63 percent said the main thing stopping them was the fear of putting their credit card data online. "That remains the key factor that will keep people offline this holiday season. I think it deserves television ads to convince people it's safe," Black said. "The sites are spending tons of money on offline marketing, and that's the exact group of people who are scared of this."

Nordstrom said that consumer fears may be assuaged as they see offline brands move online. "We're a big public company. People know us, and they know exactly what we do with their credit card," he said. Consumers, even those scared of putting their credit cards out there, still plan browse online. More than four in 10 said they would use the Internet to research products they plan to buy offline.

For "click-and-mortar" retailers -- who sell both online and off -- that's good news. In fact, Black said the study found that consumers who shop in both places spend more money offline then they do online. And having a strong offline brand is enormously helpful in reaching those shoppers, Black said.

For example, when asked where they planned to shop for electronics online this season, the most popular site was Best Buy. But Best Buy doesn't currently sell electronics online, although the company has said it is working on a new store. "Offline retailers are just squandering their brand when they don't react fast," Black said.

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