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Tricks and tips for e-retailers/e-shoppers

By DAR HADDIX, UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- While online shopping's really taken off this year, it's not as simple as some might think. There's a few little secrets that retailers and consumers need to know to make the most of their online shopping -- or marketing -- efforts.

Comparison shopping, cheaper shipping, easier returns and better holiday delivery guarantees are all things that online shoppers should watch for. And to best serve their customers during this frenetic shopping season, e-retailers and traditional retailers with an e-presence should be prepared to handle heavy e-traffic when and where it happens.

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Online shoppers don't just have a way to bypass the malls and crowds; they also have a near-instantaneous way to comparison shop. The most visited comparison-shopping sites were Yahoo! Shopping, www.bizrate.com and www.shopping.com, according to Web research firm Hitwise. The three fastest growing comparison-shopping sites in the week leading up to Thanksgiving were www.calibex.com, www.froogle.com and www.shopping.com.

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"This year's dramatic increase in the use of comparison shopping sites marks a new era in online shopping. Users are becoming more sophisticated in their online purchase behaviors, clearly demonstrating the willingness to use comparison shopping sites to find the best product at the best price," said Bill Tancer, vice-president of research at Hitwise.

And shoppers shouldn't stop at comparing prices they see at different Web sites, but also compare what kind of savings they'll get if they shop at the Web site or its brick-and-mortar cousin. According to America Online's third annual "Online Shopping Cities" survey, online shoppers today are using the Internet 80 percent more to research and comparison shop than they did in 2002, and most say that online shopping has improved over the past year.

"Online shopping is no longer just about completing a transaction over the Internet, we're now seeing sophisticated shoppers using comparison shopping tools and shopping search engines to find the best deals -- whether that's online or off," said Bob Hayes, vice president and general manager of AOL eCommerce.

Free or discounted shipping, guaranteed holiday delivery, gift wrapping, and the ability to pick up and return online purchases at local brick-and-mortar stores are also perks that online shoppers should look for this year. For instance, items on Sears.com that are marked with a blue star are available for pickup at the store after customers order them online.

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Gift-hunters can use some Web sites to find holiday coupons and sales. For instance, 247malls.com and Savingscount.com provide links to coupons redeemable at big-name stores like Amazon.com, Ace Hardware, Avon, Circuit City, the Disney Store, the Discovery Channel Store, Eddie Bauer, Overstock.com, and Toys R Us. Shoplocal.com allows you to bargain-hunt in your neighborhood, everything from the ordinary (toilet paper) to the extraordinary (golf clubs).

For Santas that are also Discover credit-card holders, the Discover Gift Card Finder, using criteria like the recipient's age, sex and interests, creates a list of gifts from participating merchant partners, so users get discounts off their purchases.

Along with this year's e-tail boom came the realization that many Web sites needed to boost their ability to handle more traffic during busy shopping times, according to Keynote Systems in Reston, Va. Keynote said that due to heavy volume, the average time it took shoppers to complete transactions on Monday went from the usual 13-14 seconds to 21 seconds. And whereas 97 percent of transactions normally go through, shoppers were only able to complete 80 percent of transactions.

On the same note, retailers should also know what areas have the most holiday shoppers. America Online's holiday shopping study showed San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego County as the three most wired cities, with the most online holiday shoppers. The rankings were based on a nationwide survey of 6,043 adults that asked how much they planned to spend online.

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E-tailers should also be aware that the peak online shopping day is migrating steadily toward Christmas, a recent study by digital marketing technology provider Atlas DMT shows. According to the study, the 2004 online holiday shopping season's busiest day will occur during the work week of Dec. 13th, most likely at the end of that week. Last year's most active online shopping day was Dec. 15, as compared to Dec. 10, in 2002, and demonstrated a 140 percent increase in sales over an average holiday shopping day.

"Over the last four years, (online shoppers') confidence has grown as the peak shopping day moves closer to Christmas," said Young-Bean Song, director of analytics, Atlas DMT. "Holiday shopping online isn't a novelty anymore. During this critical season, consumers are shopping in stores on the weekends and then continuing that shopping experience online during the workweek."

He added, "With more than 50 percent of U.S. households now wired with high speed Internet connections and the growing consumer confidence in retailers' ability to deliver goods on time, the industry should be gearing up for a great holiday season."

During the holidays, Mondays remain the busiest online shopping day, in contrast to the rest of the year, the Atlas study showed. Consumers shop in brick-and-mortar stores on weekends and then log on to do comparative shopping on Monday. Fridays are also a big online shopping day during the holidays, unlike the rest of the year.

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In general, weekdays are the most active online shopping days during the holidays, especially between noon and 3 p.m. EST, during employee lunch breaks.

Retail marketers can take advantage of this by placing ads that will reach at-work shoppers during those hours.

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