A quick survey reveals not everyone is ready for the holidays.

“I seriously feel like it was only yesterday when I was wondering what to do with the kids over the summer, and now it’s the Christmas crunch time,” laments Laura, 42, a Northern New Jersey caterer.

For those feeling that playing catch-up is a way of life, retailers are offering a short-cut to get a handle on the holidays – cyber shopping.

” Consumers love the convenience,” says Kurt Peters, editor in chief of Internet Retailer magazine. “And retailers are taking the channel seriously enough that they are offering internet-only specials and free shipping. Online shopping has become mainstream to American consumers’ buying habits.”

November e-commerce apparel sales enjoyed a 17% gain over last year following a solid Black Friday, according to comScore, Inc., a global internet information provider.

Women accounted for much of that increase, as 55% of females browse the internet for clothes, a 13.6 percentage point increase from a year ago, according to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle MonitorTM. That number is higher among the younger set: 60% among those aged 16-24; and 62% of those 25-34. Growth in browsing occurred among both those who like to apparel shop (up 9 points to 61%) and those who dislike clothes shopping (up 10 points to 47%).

Browsed The Internet For Clothes
  Female 16-24 25-34 35-55 56-70
Yes 55% 60% 62% 52% 34%
No 45% 40% 38% 48% 66%

Brooks Brothers has a strong female cyber community. While the “male consumers are almost exclusively shopping for themselves, 45% of the women shopping at BrooksBrothers.com are purchasing merchandise for someone else such as a spouse or child,” says Jarid B. Lukin, e-commerce manager, adding that he expects record-breaking online sales this year.

BrooksBrothers.com recently added larger and more accurate product images, so customers can view fabrics in detail—as if they were shopping in-store. Lukin says investments also were made in the site’s speed and performance.

Speed is increasingly important to the online shopper, Peters says. “Consumers used to bail on a site if it didn’t load in eight seconds, now it’s four seconds,” he explains. “And speed is not just a matter of seconds to download, it’s also how quickly you can get to the product you want. People will leave in frustration if they can’t find what they want fast.”

RalphLauren.com recently added three new features that amp up the convenience factor, as well as site speed. An “E-mail Your Wish List” function lets customers build their gift lists, and then send them to friends and family. Gift wrap options are now simpler: shoppers can choose packaging as they add items to their cart, rather than at checkout. Finally, a new “previous/next” button on the item detail page allows customers to scroll through a category without having to click back-and-forth to the grid. RalphLauren.com’s second-quarter sales increased 28% over last year, driven by double-digit gains in all major categories. The company’s total retail sales for the first half of this year were up 8% to $924 million. RalphLauren.com was named a 2007 Best of The Web site by Internet Retailer.

JC Penney’s site provides information on more than 250,000 merchandise offerings, says Kate Parkhouse, spokesperson.

“As customers increasingly leverage the Internet to do research before shopping, they have an expectation that they will be able to not only purchase merchandise online, but also research merchandise, price compare, and review weekly promotions before ever stepping foot in a JC Penney store,” Parkhouse states.

Over the last half-decade, purchases of women’s apparel have risen five percentage points, to 11%, according to NPD Fashionworld’s AccuPanel. Meanwhile, catalog purchases have decreased two percentage points to 4%, and in-store purchases have remained flat— accounting for 83% in 2007.

Gap revamped its web site two years ago, and was also named a Best of The Web site by Internet Retailer. In 2006, Gap Inc., reported $730 million in net retail sales with its Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy Internet businesses.

Will Hunsinger vice-president, general manager of Gap Online, says the company has added a video function that allows customers to view a product’s look and fit. It’s also testing a singlescreen check out, for faster transactions. And the site now has a search key (a former omi s s ion that had bloggers up in arms), as well as alternate product views and zoom photography.

“The site is highly strategic as an expression of the Gap brand,” Hunsinger says. “It also has to be a convenient way for customers to shop, whether for herself, or for her kids or babies.”

JC Penney’s site accounts for more than $1.3 billion in annual sales, which are up 11.8% over last year. This season, jcp.com added a Christmas “microsite.”

“Jcpgifts.com allows users to easily search for the ‘perfect gift’ by price range, person and category as well as participate in highly engaging, interactive activities, such as viewing the new Christmas commercials, downloading wallpapers and ringtones, and creating personalized ‘wish lists,'” Parkhouse says.

Brooks Brothers’ top-selling online items include non-iron dress shirts for both men and women. And during the holiday season, festively decorated gift cards are very popular.

“We view our site as another flagship location that plays many different roles,” Lukin says. .”

This story is one in a series of articles based on findings from Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ tracking research. Each story will focus on a specific topic as it relates to the American consumer and her attitudes and behavior regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, fiber selection and many other timely, relevant subjects.

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