There may be no better ways of avoiding the holiday mob scenes than sneaking an online shopping trip at the office or snuggling in bed with a trusty catalogue. No drives to the store, no waits in long lines and no desperate hunts for a salesperson.

We looked at nine retailers that operated stores, online shops and catalogues. Some of the merchants make shopping such a breeze in their online stores and catalogues that there's no compelling reason to hit their off-line stores. Cataloguers like J. Crew have an edge because they are used to catering to people ordering from home. That experience is also apparent online, where they display descriptive photos and resist the temptation to clutter their Web pages with decorations.

The Web storefronts of Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, Sharper Image and Harry and David also offer more products online, where they bring together merchandise from several catalogues. And J. Crew and Eddie Bauer stock clothing sizes online and in their catalogues that are not carried in their stores.

But other retailers, most notably Nordstrom, still provide a wider selection and better service in their traditional stores. Shoppers also may be able to find bigger discounts in regular stores.

Put another way, some cybershops aren't worth the time. They blind shoppers with blinking icons. They make consumers click through long lists of merchandise. They hide prices. They have scanty offerings. They don't offer discounts. And they make it hard to buy and return goods.

At Brookstone's Internet shop, for instance, a hypnotizing "B" rotates in the upper left-hand corner of the home page. A promotional box pops up every time you click back to the home page--comparable to sticking a giant display in the middle of a shopping aisle.

At Victoria's Secret, waiting for a picture to load can be like reaching for an item on a store shelf in slow motion. Last week, the site failed several times, refusing to accept orders.

Type in "skirts" at the Bloomingdale's Web site, for example, and 12 photos pop onto the screen--many of them cropped just below the waist.

Nordstrom may boast that it runs the biggest footwear store in cyberspace, but one of the most popular brands--9 West--is still absent online, though the retailer has been adding brand names each week. And the site doesn't always list prices on the same page as photographs.

Most retailers offered the same prices on the latest styles at their stores, online shops and in their catalogues. But when it comes to past-season merchandise and overstocks, it's hard to say where shoppers will find the best deals.

J. Crew offers regular sales items online, as well as weekly clearance items. In contrast, rival Banana Republic gave consumers little reason to shop online or by catalogue, offering discounted merchandise only at its stores.

While shopping online, consumers should look for cut-rate deals on shipping and handling. Also check return policies--an increasing number of retailers accept online and catalogue returns at their stores, but Victoria's Secret and Harry and David do not.

Don't expect the online boom to thin out the mall crowds. Analysts predict healthy in-person sales, and many customers still flock to shopping centers to feel the fabric and test the foot massagers.

Store managers acknowledge that customer service this year may deteriorate in the Washington area and other markets where jobless rates have plummeted. In upcoming weeks, things will only get worse because many seasonal positions have not been filled, store managers said.

The employee shortage is already beginning to show. On a slow day last week at Bloomingdale's in Tysons Corner, five frustrated customers waited with shoes in hand in the footwear section. There was not an employee to be found on the shoe sales floor.

And a "Hellooo?" to the employees at the Tysons Corner Banana Republic, where the young salespeople on the floor seemed more interested in restocking than greeting customers.

But at the Tysons Nordstrom, the shoe section had more employees than shoppers. A salesman was fully versed in the company's online policies and discussed when and where to get the best sales prices. At the nearby Brookstone store, experienced employees seemed to always have the answers to questions, and their banter had shoppers in stitches.

Try to find that online.

Bricks vs. Clicks: A Buyer's Guide

Eddie Bauer, 1-800-789-1386

Description: Sells clothing, outerwear, shoes, luggage and more.

Standard shipping costs: $5.95 for items up to $30; $7.95 for orders between $30.01 and $60.

Returns: Web and catalogue purchases can be returned to stores.

Discounts: Regular sales in all three branches.

Shopping experience: Easy-to-use Web site. Staff at all three operations were knowledgeable about the company's Web site, catalogues and stores.

Selection Online store provides the best merchandise mix; the stores often lack dressy dresses and shoes, with only slim pickings of petite and tall sizes.

Recommendation: Shop online.

J. Crew, 1-800-562-0258

Description: Sells casual and dress clothing for 20- and 30-ish men and women.

Standard shipping costs: $4.95 for orders up to $25, $6.95 for orders between $25.01 and $50.

Returns: Web and catalogue purchases can be returned to stores.

Discounts: Big after-season sales in catalogue and Web store, plus weekly clearance sales online.

Shopping experience: Easy-to-use Web site and catalogue. Attentive sales staff at the Tysons store.

Selection Best selection is online, which includes a look at past catalogue merchandise and much more. Stores carry shoes but no petite sizes, as the catalogues and online sites do.

Recommendation: Shop online.

Banana Republic, 1-888-906-2800

Description: Apparel retailer targeting the 20s-to-30s crowd.

Standard shipping costs: $5 for orders up to $30, $7 for orders between $30.01 and $60.

Return policy: Web and catalogue purchases can be returned to stores.

Discounts: Sales only in stores.

Shopping experience: Varied among local stores between so-so and good. The retailer is new to online and catalogue retailing--and it shows.

Selection The catalogues and online site mainly carry the latest styles.

Recommendation: Go to the store.

Victoria's Secret, 1-800-888-8200

Description: Lingerie and apparel retailer.

Standard shipping costs: $4.95 for orders up to $25, $6.95 for orders between $25.01 and $40.

Returns: Stores do not accept returns of Web or catalogue purchases.

Discounts: Regular discounting on the Web, in catalogues and in stores.

Shopping experience: Stores seemed to be out of sizes of popular bras. Web site is difficult to navigate, sometimes slows to a crawl.

Selection Couldn't find many catalogue items online.

Recommendation: Pick up the catalogue.

Bloomingdale's, 1-800-472-0788

Description: Department store.

Standard shipping costs: $5.95 for orders up to $25, $7.95 for orders between $25.01 and $50.

Returns: Web and catalogue purchases--but not furniture--can be returned to stores.

Discounts: Racks and racks of clearance items at the stores.

Shopping experience: Hunting down a salesperson can be a challenge in the stores. Photos on Web site don't always give good views of the items.

Selection Catalogue has few men's clothing items, Web site offers none.

Recommendation: Go to the store.

Nordstrom, 1-888-282-6060

Description: Specialty department store.

Standard shipping costs: $4.95 for orders up to $25, $6.95 for orders between $25.01 and $50.

Returns: Web and catalogue purchases can be returned to regular stores, but not Nordstrom Rack outlets.

Discounts: Big shoe discounts online and in stores.

Shopping experience: Provides top-notch customer service in stores. Web site uses too-small print in some areas.

Selection Catalogue appears to have the fewest picks. Online shoe store is missing a few brand names.

Recommendation: Go to the store.

Brookstone, 1-800-926-7000

Description: Sells tools, gadgets and gift items.

Standard shipping costs: $7.95 per order.

Returns: Online and catalogue purchases can be returned to stores.

Discounts: Stores often have some clearance items.

Shopping experience: Distracting, bothersome Web site design, but excellent service at Tysons store.

Selection Stores carry same selection online and in the catalogues, aside from stereo equipment, portable generators and large, bulky items.

Recommendation: Pick up the catalogue or go to the store--it's your call.

Sharper Image, 1-800-344-4444

Description: Sells electronic gadgets, personal care products and games.

Standard shipping costs: $2.95 for orders up to $25, $6.95 for items between $25.01 and $50.

Returns: Web and catalogue purchases, except auction purchases, can be returned to stores.

Discounts: Web site offers auctions as well as sale prices.

Shopping experience: Store staff provided good service and the catalogue is well designed.

Selection Web carries the most merchandise.

Recommendation: Shop online.

Harry and David, 1-800-547-3033

Description: gourmet food and gifts shop.

Standard shipping costs: $7.95 for orders up to $30, $11.95 for orders between $30.01 and $50.

Returns: Stores do not accept returns of Web or catalogue purchases.

Discounts: More sales online, as well as daily special prices.

Shopping experience: Couldn't find many catalogue and online products in the stores. Stores provided better customer service, as well as tasty truffle samples.

Selection Web store combines several catalogues' inventory.

Recommendation: Shop online.