By  on December 2, 2005

NEW YORK — Price is no object for online shoppers this holiday season.

Customers are pointing and clicking on furs, diamonds and designer handbags at Web sites operated by stores ranging from Neiman Marcus to Wal-Mart. Shoppers' rush to the Web is fueling increases in online traffic this holiday season that could top 60 percent for some retailers compared with last year.

"Consumers are buying outerwear and furs online," said Franz W. Weiglein, president of Bloomingdale's Direct. "People are buying furs in Texas."

Bloomingdales.com is also selling lots of cocktail rings, long necklaces, cashmere blazers, brightly colored 100 percent cashmere sweaters from Aqua Cashmere, an in-house label, and handbags from Marc Jacobs, Ugg and Juicy Couture.

Without space constraints, the store's Web site offers a wider selection and Internet-only products unavailable in stores or catalogues. The entire world of Juicy Couture for men, women and children can be found on Bloomingdales.com, while catalogues sell only Juicy women's apparel, handbags and accessories.

There's only one word to describe the growth in Bloomingdale's Internet business, which added men's wear and home products this holiday season: "Exponential," said Weiglein. "The Internet is a vehicle that's very new so everyone is seeing increases, but the magnitude of the increases over the last few days has been phenomenal."

While Internet sales represent less than 5 percent of total retail sales, the medium is making strides. Online sales for the holiday season are expected to rise 25 percent to $18 billion between Thanksgiving and Christmas over last year, according to a report from Forrester Research issued Wednesday.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the number of unique visitors to 100 online retailers tracked by the service jumped 29 percent from last year's number for the day after Thanksgiving. EBay was the top destination for online shoppers on Black Friday with 9.5 million unique visitors, followed by Amazon with 4.6 million. Wal-Mart drew 3.4 million to its Web site and Target, 2.9 million.

Gerald Barnes, general merchandise manager of apparel and accessories at Neiman Marcus, said velvet; boots, especially Western and riding boots; diamond jewelry of all types; denim; evening separates, and designer sunglasses are resonating with consumers. A designer sale on the Web site offers Dolce & Gabbana peep toe pumps, regularly $750, for $525; a Chloé silk blouse, regularly $710, now $497, and Tod's Charlotte Media handbag, regularly $1,150, now $805.Saks.com produced its first online holiday catalogue this year. The cover shows a pair of Marc Jacobs' boots traipsing through the snow. Saks.com has already sold through over half of the items in the book, including products such as a Bose sound docking system and headphones, gourmet gift baskets, fur collars, fur hats, a Juicy Couture panties set and those snow boots. Denise Incandela, senior vice president of Saks Direct, said online orders are averaging $400 a pop.

"For fall we are expecting to be 40 to 50 percent ahead of last fall," said Incandela. Shoppers started early, the week before Thanksgiving. Saks.com is offering free shipping on orders of $100 or more. A Saks Sparkles sale broke online on Wednesday promising savings of 25 to 40 percent. Online holiday gift guides refresh themselves to show hundreds of items from cashmere sweaters, jewelry and beauty products to men's furnishings. "Handbags, leather jackets and overcoats are starting to sell as a giftable items," Incandela said.

Vivre.com's average transaction of $600 has grown slightly since the start of the holiday season, said founder Eva Jeanbart Lorenzotti. Vests — from Adam & Eve's quilted satin number for $225 to Anne Dee Goldin's white Chekiang lamb style for $1,440 — are big sellers. "It's a huge trend in general," Lorenzotti said. "It's become the new accessory."

Boots are strong sellers on Vivre.com, which has options such as Borbonese suede boots for $1,165, Devi Kroell python boots for $1,950 and Oscar de la Renta suede stirrup boots for $850, among others. Chunky jewelry is also a big category for Vivre, Lorenzotti said.

"We've been averaging between 20 and 30 percent increases," Lorenzotti added. "Throughout most of the year there's a lot of self-purchasing. We've seen a pickup in the men's and children's items and also the more special pieces."

And it's not only luxury sites that are seeing less price resistance. One of Walmart.com's bestsellers is the Mobi Blu Cube, a 1-inch-square combination MP3 player, FM radio and alarm clock for $129. "It's a trend-forward item," said Amy Colella, a Walmart.com spokeswoman. "It's exclusive to Walmart.com. It can be used as a charm for a lanyard or a bracelet."Walmart.com sells expanded assortments online — over one million products — the majority of which cannot be found in the company's stores. "Because we have the virtual shelf space we can provide a deeper selection," Colella said.

Walmart.com expects to have its best holiday season ever, with over 160 million visits to the Web site for the season, a 60 percent increase over last year's holiday. "Thanksgiving week traffic beat the forecast by more than 25 percent or 25 million weekly visits for the week," said Colella. "Cyber Monday was strong with nearly three million daily visits. We anticipate our traffic to climb even further to 25 million to 30 million visits in the weeks of December."

The company has been aggressively marketing the site, with a holiday television commercial now airing in several markets, and is offering 97-cent shipping on selected toys and video games to attract shoppers.

Wal-Mart uses the site to gauge customer interest in products before putting them in its physical stores. For the holiday season, test products include 100 percent cashmere throws and flat panel TVs. The Web site also offers higher-priced merchandise than Wal-Mart stores, including cashmere sweaters from $30 to $40 and a yellow diamond ring for about $10,000. The 1.75-carat ring was out of stock on Thursday.

Diamonds are on the minds of Sears.com and Kmart.com shoppers as well. Chris Shimojima, vice president and general manager of Sears Holding Customer Direct, said "diamond stud earrings are the champions so far." The Kmart Web site is selling 0.25-carat earrings for $49.99 and a pair of 0.50-carat earrings is $99.99 on Sears.com. Also on the Sears Web site, an opera coat from Apostrophe for $58.99 is selling swiftly and cashmere turtleneck sweaters are doing "unbelievably well," Shimojima said.

JCPenney.com's bestsellers fall into two categories, everyday items such as towels and Levi's jeans, and holiday products. In the latter area, Ride On toys and razor scooters are standouts, said Bernie Feiwus, senior vice president and chief operating officer of J.C. Penney Direct. "They're buying jewelry and cashmere, but the bigger news is the overall strength of the Internet," he said. "Online continues to grow to be a bigger portion of our total business. The growth this year is up 30 percent and we expect to hit $1 billion in sales this fiscal year."Penney's has made enhancements to its site, which carries 250,000 stockkeeping units. It launched a smaller site called JCPGifts.com, with animation and gifts sorted by price, person and theme. An offer to save $10 off a $50 order appeared on the site on Thursday. "We're focusing on assisting the customer in navigating to get to what they want," said Feiwus. "It's an experience that's not on the core site."

Portero, an upscale online auction house, has had a not entirely unwelcome problem this year: selling through its inventory. "It's creating some issues for us because we're moving through inventory faster than we can refill it," said Dan Nissanoff, founder and chief executive officer. "There's incredible demand out there. Our biggest challenge is keeping the flow of inventory relative to the demand."

Nissanoff said he's started talking to luxury firms about buying excess inventory. "Luxury handbag companies are starting to mark down already and we're peaking," he said. "It's a good combination. They can use us as a way to move their goods."

For Portero customers, "handbags continue to be a very hot item as well as higher-end apparel," Nissanoff said. "We've done exceptionally well with watches and jewelry. We've seen a spike with watches. We have a mixture of new and previously owned goods."

Traffic to the site has jumped from 8,000 visitors on an average day to "tens of thousands of visitors" since Thanksgiving Day, Nissanoff said, noting that average selling prices have been slightly higher. Nissanoff said Portero is poised to triple its volume over the same period last year.

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