BOSTON — Attention desktop shoppers, 'tis the season to beat the crowds, lines, and traffic jams.
Relax, stay home, and let the mall come to you.
Buy your Christmas gifts online.
Online retailers expect 1998 to be the year Internet shopping takes off.
The selection of goods and merchants online is growing, credit-card security concerns have largely been assuaged, and at least one segment of shoppers is becoming accustomed to buying airline tickets, computer gear, and even groceries online.
Internet sales pitches come in various forms. Many sites run lists of classified ads; some auction new or used merchandise; and thousands operate like catalogs.
All you do is type in the Web address, click on what you want, enter your credit-card number, and wait for your purchase to arrive in the mail.
It makes Christmas shopping easy.
The only hard thing about shopping online "is figuring out whether the site is reputable," says Geoff Stuart, who regularly buys books online and even purchased a satellite TV receiver.
"For me, I stick with sites of companies I know, that have a past reputation," says the Brookline, Mass., resident. When he needs something different, he follows the recommendations of the sites he trusts.
Most of the popular Web search engines, such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Alta Vista, rate online retailers and offer holiday shopping guides. Several Web sites also act as clearinghouses to identify and rank online retailers. (See overview sites, above.)
The best shopping sites have a broad selection, ratings and reviews of merchandise, a powerful search function to help you find the item you want, a secure ordering system - and of course low prices.
People still buy computers and other electronic equipment more than other types of goods. Sales of cars, books, and home mortgages follow close behind. But this Christmas season you could send a creative greeting card from American Greetings (www.americangreetings.com) or Blue Mountain Arts (www.bluemountain.com).
So far most Web shoppers are under 30, college educated, and male. But as new products such as flowers and greeting cards come online, merchants hope that picture will change.
With thousands of new businesses springing up online, consumers should have an easier time finding exactly what they want - at the price they want to pay.
And many aren't afraid to pay by credit card. Consumers are realizing that computer encryption makes using credit cards safer on the Web than going "to a restaurant and giving my card to some guy with multiple piercing and long hair who disappears with it for a while. And I expect him to bring it back without saving the number somewhere!" says a New York Web merchant, who requested anonymity.
Complaints about Internet security are usually only excuses by companies who "aren't succeeding on the Web," he says.
Often the best online merchants are companies without a lot of overhead invested in physical retail sales, says Steve Larkin, director of consumer communications at Ford Motor Credit, who runs the company's Internet site.
1. Shop with companies you know. Many of your favorite catalogs and retail stores sell the same products on their Web sites.
2. Check the customer service section, including return policies, before you order. While most companies provide satisfaction guarantees, items such as software or CDs can be copied and are sometimes not returnable.
3. Use secure sites. Reputable companies provide secure shopping for their customers. When moving to the checkout section of a Web site, make sure you see an icon of an unbroken key or locked padlock at the bottom of the screen. Also, the URL should read "https:" if you are shopping on a secure server.
4. Pay by credit card. Consumers have all of the same legal protections shopping online as they have when shopping in retail stores or catalogs.
5. Keep a record of your order. Print out the order form and keep it in case any questions arise.
Several Web sites provide listings and rankings of online retailers. Such clearing houses are the best place for novice Net shoppers to start.
The major search engines - Yahoo!, Excite, Alta Vista, and Infoseek - also offer holiday shopping guides. You can even buy through Yahoo!'s. But none hold a Christmas candle to BizRate and mySimon.
The bible of online shopping, Bizrate staff and customers rate thousands of online merchants. Bizrate tells at a glance whether the sites offer credit-card security, order tracking, product searches, and gift wrapping. It's well organized, but doesn't help with what products to buy, only where to buy them.
My Simon provides powerful product searches and a well-organized selection from a variety of merchants. But you can buy directly from My Simon. No credit card is needed; you'll get a bill.
The Mining Company tracks the best retailers with a network of staff members around the country.
Netmarket provides a variety of goods and a variety of ways to buy them, new or used, from retailers, auctions, or classified ads. Netmarket charges an extra fee to make a purchase.
Still in its infancy, Shabang already offers a good selection of merchandise in several categories. Membership is required, but it costs nothing to join.
From teddy bears to bracelets, the Web site of the well-known shopping channel QVC offers a wide selection of gift ideas.
SITES FOR SPECIFIC GIFTS
Everything in the catalog you'll find here and it's easy to ship to someone else.
All the Gap stuff, including links to Gapkids and Babygap, plus an outfit coordinator for the fashion challenged.
Ships fresh, exotic Hawaiian flowers.
Fresh flowers shipped overnight from growers.
Discount flowers that last, from overseas growers.
Offers top toy choices by age group. Also videos and software.
A vast amount of toys both collectibles and current hits. An excellent selection at good prices.
Whether it's Serenade in Satin or Symphony in Chiffon, Barbie collectibles are here, albeit pricey.
Dedicated to dolls that promote positive family values.
Books, music, videos, magazines
This easy to navigate site has thousands of book titles.
Books aren't the only things that abound at this site. There is also a variety of music albums and videos.
A cross between a searchable music store and online magazine, with discount prices
This comprehensive online music store gives a lot of detail and sound clips before you buy.
More than 150,000 albums and 35,000 videos are here for your perusal and purchase.
Search by actor, title, or genre to find your favorite DVD titles.
Give a magazine subscription this Christmas. This site has hundreds of mainstream and obscure magazine titles to choose from.
Candy and food
A classy site with elegant food for the relatives.
Buy exotic teas such as jasmine, apricot, and mango.
The wide variety of chocolates at this decadent site will make your mouth water.
Gifts for the one who has everything
From Nintendo to Windows, the hottest video games on the market are here.
Hundreds of high-tech trinkets and secure ordering.
Auto, travel, and gardening gifts for the hard-to-buy-for person.
Climbing, hiking, skiing, biking, and camping gear.
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