Holiday Sales To Soar, But Will Shoppers Be Back?

According to Washington-based research firm The Strategis Group, more than 100 million Americans are using the Internet, and getting smarter and faster as they surf.

Another group, the Computer Industry Almanac, reports that more than 110 million Americans will be using the Internet by the end of this year, accounting for 43 percent of the world’s total.

A third research organization, NFO Interactive, found that 27 million U.S. households are shopping online.

The numbers would seem to suggest smooth sailing for the thousands of newly formed click-and-mortar e-tailers gearing up for the holiday season. Still, the online shopping experience is a nuance in our culture, and the big question is: Once millions of shoppers go shopping in cyberspace, will they be back?

The Importance Of A Strong Debut

Analysts seem to agree that developing loyalty or even a return visit from most online shoppers depends largely upon consumers’ first few efforts to purchase something over the Internet.

Moreover, poor performance by a few e-tailers may have a trickle down effect to most retailers. In other words, if a small percentage of shoppers are vocal enough about their negative experiences with online buying, their attitude may influence an inordinate number of would-be online shoppers.

“Internet users have become savvy,” said Jeff Moore, an analyst with Strategis. “Not only is half of the population online, Internet users are more experienced and have become significantly more sophisticated in their use of the Internet as a tool for communication, commerce and learning.”

With their newfound skills and increasingly wary eye, Internet shoppers are doing their best not to fall prey to dishonest e-tailers. Last year, Internet fraud complaints jumped to 7,752, up from 1,280 in 1997. The Federal Trade Commission is on the case, but the negative word-of-mouth generated by the proliferation of complaints is making legitimate e-tailers nervous.

Even with the number of Internet users skyrocketing, fewer than 20 percent of online shoppers actually buy something when they visit a retail site, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll. Consumers are still skeptical, especially if the product they are considering is being sold by a business that they have never heard of.

Additionally, if the would-be transaction takes too long or becomes too cumbersome, figures indicate that shoppers either jump to another site or log off.

Arming Consumers Against Online Fraud

The message from the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection is that consumers must take responsibility for their own safe shopping.

Bureau chief Jodie Bernstein suggests a number of useful steps for a safe online shopping experience:

Shop with companies you know and make sure the company’s refund and return policies are clear.

Use a credit card so you can dispute the charges later if necessary.

Keep a record of online transactions.

Look for a company’s online privacy policies. Still, even with the issuance of these warnings, Bernstein is quick to add that the number of online shopping complaints probably has more to do with the dramatic growth of online commerce than it does with rampant fraud.

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