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Surf's Up On Web Shopping

Shop.org projects online sales will grow by more than 20 percent this year, but there are wild cards that could slow it down.

One is credit card fraud, which runs much higher for Web retailers than for brick-and-mortar stores. So-called "phishing" attacks, in which fraudsters send bogus e-mails to trick people into providing their credit card data, have been rising. Another potential snag: More than 20 states are lobbying to force Web retailers to pay state sales tax, from which most are now exempt.

The type of goods sold varies widely. After travel, computers and electronics is the biggest online-sales category. While apparel sales are much smaller, they are growing faster, as are sales of jewelry and home decor items.

Cars have become huge sellers online, surprising those who thought Web shoppers would insist on personal inspections. Last year, cars accounted for roughly one-third of the total $34 billion in merchandise sold through eBay's online marketplace.

Tires are big Internet sellers, too, along with furniture. Several furniture Web sites made the top 400 list, including Furniture.com, RoomsToGo.com, ClubFurniture.com and EverythingFurniture.com. Discount flooring retailer iFloor.com ranked No. 115.

Specialty retailers of all kinds are racking up sales. Among others in the top 400, paintball supplies are the draw at Xtremez.com, area rugs at RugsDirect.com, wedding supplies at BrideSave.com, fitness stuff at BodyBuilding.com, and you can guess what's available from Headsets.com.

Success online is hardly automatic, though. It still requires a knowledge of the customer and the competition.

Sinmurn of Zappos said the company did some soul-searching and realized its real competition was off-line shoe stores. "How can we make online shoe shopping as easy as off-line?" Sinmurn and his colleagues asked themselves. They decided one way was to ship super-fast for free. Another was to give customers 365 days to return shoes, no questions asked. They even pay for return shipping. "Now the main driver of our sales is word of mouth," he said. "And on any given day, over 60 percent of our customers are repeat customers."

"The Internet has really leveled the playing field in retail," said Kurt Peters, editor of Internet Retailer. "You no longer have to be able to invest in a store and a lot of inventory and a big staff to become a national retailer."


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