CDnow's online music store has been repainted with beiges and other muted colors that appeal to women. At Neiman Marcus's new cybershop, a "personal shopper" will help women by recommending a stylish outfit from boots to hat.
Nordstrom opened an online shoe store this month carrying 20 million pairs of shoes, primarily for women. And in beauty supplies alone, more than 50 online boutiques have opened, with such names as Gloss.com, Eve.com and Beauty Cafe.
If the burgeoning online marketplace looks different this holiday selling season, there's a compelling reason: Women are starting to take over. The Internet, long a playground for male techies, is getting in touch with its feminine side, researchers and retailers say. That's because the online gender gap is closing, with women making up nearly half of the U.S. Internet population.
"This Christmas season is going to be the year of the woman," said Jack Staff, chief economist for Zona Research.
Not only are women going online for the first time this year at a greater rate than men, they are also opening their purses to electronic merchants faster than experts predicted. The reason, analysts say, is that juggling careers, children and housework has made women hungry for the convenience and lower prices the Internet promises.
"It's happening now," said Edward LaHood, chairman of Beautyjungle.com Inc., which plans to open a cyberstore this month. "We are in this huge transition in which women are becoming the dominant force on the Web."
Many retailers are racing to make their sites friendlier to women before the holiday season, when Internet sales are expected to more than double, reaching $4 billion, according to Forrester Research Inc.
Some are tweaking page designs to reflect the fact that women like to navigate Web sites differently than men, according to retailers. Others have widened their virtual shelves to include gifts for women as well as men.
And increasingly, cybermerchants are learning there are some things women demand that men don't. Women want a different shopping experience online, just like they do on the ground. They like to browse; men like to hunt for a specific item and then depart as quickly as possible.
"Men come in and want to type in D-V-D [for digital video disc] and hit the go button," said Greg Drew, chief executive of music and electronics site 800.com. "They're like heat-seeking missiles."
Three years ago, the vast majority of Internet users were affluent white males who worked in either academia or technology firms. "They truly were the guys with the pocket protectors," said Bill Bass, vice president of e-commerce for apparel retailer Lands' End Inc.
That's why few people took an America Online executive named Jonathan Bulkeley seriously when he predicted that women would eventually be half of AOL's membership and drive online shopping the way they do at traditional stores.
"Nobody believed me," said Bulkeley, now chief executive at Barnesandnoble.com. "Back then, it was 75 percent male. But what most people failed to realize is this was a communications medium, and women like to communicate."
Bulkeley also knew that women make most of the buying decisions offline and saw no reason they wouldn't exert similar influence online. Even though most women work nowadays, they still do the bulk of America's shopping, with more than 80 percent identifying themselves as the principal shoppers in their households, according to Simmons Research.
Indeed, the trend Bulkeley predicted has hit AOL full force and is sweeping through the rest of cyberspace. Women now slightly outnumber men among AOL's 19 million members, and AOL says 48 percent of its female subscribers are making online purchases.
Nationwide, women make up about 49 percent of the 100 million Internet users. They are expected to equal men next year, according to Jupiter Communications. Women still spend less online, largely because their average income is lower. But within three years, women will take the lead, spending $27 billion online compared with men's $26 billion, the research company said.
Some Internet experts believe that many e-commerce sites will begin counting more female shoppers during the upcoming holiday selling season. Already, Eddie Bauer's site has seen the shift. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus also report more women buyers than men on their online sites.
Online computer, electronics and music stores say men still represent the bulk of their customers but add that the percentage of female buyers grows every month. That has led some to make changes. Sharperimage.com, for instance, has added more gift items for women. At 800.com, shoppers will find the bulky audio equipment that takes up an entire corner of a room, but they will also find a compact audio system that comes in a silver case and fits snugly on a bookshelf.
"It speaks to the fact that women are not into 'bigger is better,' " said Drew of 800.com.
The change in the Internet's audience has also triggered an explosion of new Web sites aimed at women. The two leading women's networks--iVillage.com and Women.com--and portals such as WomenConnect.com and the Women's Consumer Network are being joined by more than 100 online perfume counters, apparel outlets, baby stores and boutiques that sell chenille pillows.
Some are taking advantage of the Internet's ability to offer seemingly limitless selection, much as book, music and computer stores did in the first wave of e-commerce sites.
Several female executives left Nike this year, for example, to start Lucy.com, an online athletic-wear store catering to women. "We were frustrated at Nike," said Lucy.com's chief buyer, Bonnie Choruby. "The sporting-goods business generally caters to men, and even though the women's business was on the rise, it was hard to get Nike to grow the women's business because any increase in display space had to come at the expense of men."
Rhonda Beddingfield, 33, a purchasing agent for the city of Charlotte, is typical of the many women who signed online last year and began shopping this year.
"For me, [online shopping] is ideal," said. "I work full time and go to school full time, so my schedule is kind of tight."
After making her first online purchase at Lands' End, she has bought clothing at J.C. Penney and collectible knives at Smokey Mountain Knife Works. She refills medications online, banks online, buys stock online and believes she will soon buy groceries online.
"It gives me some time to wind down," Beddingfield said.
The latest wave of women to come online includes homemakers like Tina Gilligan, who first watched her husband and teenage daughters surf the Web before realizing she was missing out.
Gilligan, 51, who lives near Sacramento, started by sending e-mail. Now she sends online greeting cards and does research on compact disks, dog collars and other products she wants to buy.
"About half of my friends do it," she said. "We get our kids off to school. Then we get on the computers with our cups of coffee."
Now that she has mastered the basics, she is considering making her first online purchase during the holiday season.
To appeal to new users like Gilligan, online merchants are finding they must revisit some assumptions about their visitors. For example, at Lycos Network, a large Web portal, executives say women prefer to browse by store name and prefer more graphics than men.
"There is clearly a difference between male and female as to how they interface with a site like this," said Jeff Bennett, Lycos's vice president and general manager. "I do agree that the need to be more powerful with browsing and graphics is important. It is something women like more than men, who tend to be more surgical in navigating a site."
AOL's shopping mall, which debuted last month, is oriented to browsing and looks more like a slick catalogue with large photos of models than a typical Web store full of lists and search boxes.
IVillage.com, which targets women through chat rooms, message boards and e-commerce, found that women wanted to consistently navigate its site by clicking on items located on the left side of the Web page. Men were more willing to explore by clicking on items elsewhere on the page.
Women said, "Don't change navigation on me," said Allison Abraham, chief operating officer of iVillage.
Several online retailers found that women were more likely to react positively to gift ideas or suggestions about assembling an outfit. "Women seem to love the shopping experience itself," said J. Daniel Nordstrom, co-president of Nordstrom Inc.
For online retailers, the good news is that "women are ultimately much more patient," said Paco Underhill, a consultant who has done extensive research on consumers' shopping patterns. "I think they are much more willing to accept setbacks. As gatherers, they are much more conditioned to disappointment. Men, being hunters, if they miss, they almost always end up being [ticked] off."
Female shoppers also tend to demand more personal attention--both offline and online. That's one reason Lands' End has introduced a swimsuit locater that helps shoppers find flattering bathing suits and a virtual dressing room that helps women "try on" outfits.
Women have responded well to Lands' End's services, trying on more than 400,000 clothing ensembles from last November through June. Male shoppers, however, don't seem interested in such a perquisite.
"We haven't gotten a lot of requests from men saying, 'We want that same feature,' " said Bill Bass of Lands' End.
Women spent far less than men online last year, but they are expected to outspend men soon.
Total online consumer spending
1998: $7.8 billion
2002: $53 billion (projected)
SOURCE: Jupiter Communications