E-Christmas: Online with Santa looking good...

Christmas 1998 could well represent the first year that online shopping comes into its own, according to experts.

Over 1m adults have gone online in Europe in the last six months and Industry analyst Inteco predicts that 10.9 percent of UK households will have Net access by the end of '98 compared to 6.1 percent in '97. Inteco states that the development of online retail depends not only on technical issues, such as transaction security, but also consumer confidence and enthusiasm to make the Internet a regular channel for shopping.

Another survey, this time by NOP Research Group, shows that the enthusiasm is there and is gaining momentum. In a nationally representative sample of 3000 people aged 14 and over in France, Germany and the UK, it was found that 25 percent of those who were using the Web had purchased products over the Internet in the last three months and the figure is expected to rise during '99.

Interest in e-commerce, coupled with the sheer volume of people going online, means, in theory at least, that Christmas 1998 stands to be an important time for electronic commerce. A spokesperson for Amazon, the world's leading online retailer enthused: "In the light of the amount of people who have gone online in the last year, 1998 is definitely going to be the first major year for online shopping."

And Amazon should know: the company announced net sales of $153.7m (£93.7m) for Q4 1998 compared to $37.9m (£23m) for the same period in 1997, an overall increase of 306 percent.

Leslie Mingey, business development controller for Great Universal Electronic Retailing - famed for its mail order catalogues - agrees with the optimistic predictions: "We started our first site in the early part of 1996 and we now have seven sites which we feel is indicative of the increasing popularity of online retailing."