BOSTON — It was a boom. No. It was an explosion. Wait. It was a tidal wave - a tidal wave of online shoppers.
Over Christmas, Americans shopped online till they dropped (or at least until their mouse finger got tired). Retailers had hoped virtual consumers would spend $2.5 billion between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although all the figures aren't available yet, that final figure will be more like $5 billion.
In fact, so many people avoided the malls and took to the Web to hunt for Christmas goodies, it caught retailers off-guard. In some cases, entire staffs were called in at the last second to pack, sort, and ship merchandise bought online.
Online shopping has arrived, big time. Companies that ignored it this holiday season will do so next year at their peril. All of which makes Ron Martinez very happy.
Mr. Martinez is the founder of Transactor. And his company has created a free online wallet for shoppers that is going to greatly simplify shopping online and eliminate many of the privacy concerns that still prevent others from doing so.
"Even given the current difficulties of buying online, there is nothing that compares to how convenient it is," Martinez says.
Right now, if you want to buy a book from, say, amazon.com, you need to fill out a long online form with your credit and shipping information. If you then visit another site, and want to buy something there, again you must fill out the forms. While some sites do offer the option of storing your credit information on their site, it's not an idea that excites many shoppers.
The Transactor service allows you to store your information in one place, and then download it into the appropriate order form. Your information is stored on a server in 128-bit encryption (CIA strength) that is maintained jointly by Transactor and the financial institution offering the service.
Currently, Transactor and Citibank are offering the Citibank Digital Wallet. It's a free service and you don't need to be a Citibank customer to use it. You fill in the information once. When you visit a site that accepts the wallet, you click on the appropriate logo and the "wallet," in the form of a new browser window, pops up over the order form. Then you push a button in the wallet window, and all the information is downloaded. (If you want to see the wallet in action, visit www.transactor.net).
Ultimately, Martinez says, the wallet will offer a variety of other services, including automated tracking of online purchases, an address-book function, and the ability to see what you've ordered as gifts for particular people in the past.
Why is all this important? Because the success of the Web as a financial engine depends on making the online shopping experience as easy as possible, while dealing with people's concerns about the privacy of their information. Not only will this be a boost for retailers, but also for many Web sites that depend on advertising.
I have only one reservation. Going to the mall at Christmas can be chaotic, but there is something to be said for being in a common space with people at that time of the season, or any season for that matter. While saving time, something is lost.
Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at