Internet commerce decelerated sharply as war erupted in Iraq last month but appears to be rebounding already, according to companies that track online spending.
Web search engines and shopping sites report heightened interest among online shoppers in American flags, gas masks and other emergency gear.
At Amazon.com, global-positioning-system gear has become a hot seller, along with the Grundig Satellite 800 Millennium Short Wave Receiver, a $480 item. REI.com, the outdoor store, lists GPS gear as its top seller on its home page.
At America Online, member searches for "yellow ribbons" tripled last week from the week before. More people on AOL also were searching for "care packages" and "Operation Shoebox," said spokeswoman Lisa Gibby, suggesting they were looking to buy things to ship to troops in the Persian Gulf. AOL said the number of members responding to its "deal of the day" offers reverted to prewar levels quickly after they resumed March 24. AOL had scuttled the specials in the first few days of war.
Overall, though, Internet commerce clearly lost some momentum last month because of worries over the war and the economy.
The total dough Americans spent on the Net declined by 8 percent or more on the eve of war, according to several companies that track e-commerce. Internet spending seems to have recovered somewhat and is growing again, though still not at the heady rates of early this year, according to BizRate.com, which surveys people as they shop online.
Still, Internet commerce looks healthier than offline retail, which was hurting even before the war. On the first day of war, sales in traditional stores fell 14 percent nationwide, according to the consultancy ShopperTrak. Sales gradually picked up and were down only 1.9 percent after the first 11 days of war, ShopperTrak found, which indicated that people were steadily venturing back into stores.
Business online appeared to come back even faster.
On March 17 and 18, online sales dropped 14 and 8 percent from the same days a year ago, BizRate found. Sales picked up quickly and delivered a 19 percent year-over-year increase during the first full week of war, BizRate said. Overall, e-commerce sales (excluding travel) rose 26 percent during the first quarter of 2003, the company reported.
"I would say e-tailing is much more resilient," said BizRate chief executive Chuck Davis. "In fact, a lot of people feel safer buying online in the privacy of their homes during uncertain times."
Analysts expected e-commerce might actually get a bump from the war because of the "cocooning effect" of people staying home, though that apparently didn't happen to the extent some had hoped.
"Last week was a tough week overall for most Internet retailers I have spoken to," said Elaine Rubin, chairman of Shop.org, the online arm of the National Retail Federation. "This week seems to be better. The folks I have spoken to seem to be in an uptick again."
ComScore Networks, another firm that tracks Internet spending, said it has seen online sales growth stabilizing in the past week. "The weekly trends have been a bit like a roller coaster," said Daniel E. Hess, vice president of ComScore. "As events unfold or get more tense, it is not unusual to see a sharp decline in growth rates. It is very similar to the response you see in the financial markets."
BizRate didn't release data on individual Web sites, but Nielsen/NetRatings compared at-work traffic at top retailing sites during the week war broke out with that for the previous week. It found a 27 percent traffic decline at the Web site of Dell Computer, a 3 percent drop for Amazon.com, a 21 percent fall at Walmart.com and a 9 percent reduction for eBay.
Although most Internet retailers responded in some fashion to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, altering their home pages to express sympathy or make other statements, there has been little of that during the Iraq war. Retailer 1-800-flowers.com posted a symbol showing support for the troops on its home page -- a yellow ribbon tied around an Earth icon -- and Walmart.com published a photo of a solder with a hyperlinked headline: "Send a message to our troops through Operation Dear Abby."
But for the most part, Internet retail sites remained full of cheery spring promotions, with nary a hint of the conflict raging in Iraq. One place where war-related products were much in evidence was eBay, the Internet auction site.
A search on "Iraq" or "Saddam Hussein" revealed all kinds of merchandise relating to the war-torn country being offered on eBay, including Iraqi dinars, Saddam T-shirts and political leaflets dropped in the Persian Gulf during the 1991 war. On Tuesday, 1,205 items were offered with "Saddam Hussein" in the description, and 6,839 mentioned Iraq.
EBay reports details of its sales and listings only every three months, but some who track activity on the site say listings have dropped noticeably over the past two weeks.
"The war has definitely had an effect. Sales on eBay are sluggish," said David Steiner, president of AuctionBytes.com, an electronic auction guide. "EBay dealers are tuned in to trends. They won't put up as many listings if there are fewer people looking at them."
Not all eBay sales are waning, though. Stephanie Inge, a part-time dealer and working mom in Dallas, said that while a friend who peddles costume jewelry on eBay has watched her sales hit "rock bottom," Inge's have gone straight up. That was in part because Inge found some "Wanted: Dead or Alive" Saddam Hussein posters at an estate sale the week before the war.
"I've sold over 100," Inge said.
Not one person, however, bid on the domain name Iraq.com when it was offered on eBay last week for $10,000.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is email@example.com.