NEW YORK — Apparel sales online this past holiday grew at a rate of 41 percent, outpacing broader online sales gains of 24 percent in the November-December period, excluding travel and automobiles.

This story first appeared in the January 22, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Apparel sales online came to $1.49 billion in the two-month season, or 17 percent of total online holiday volume of $8.59 billion.

That’s one piece of an upbeat picture portrayed in a joint Shop.org-BizRate.com 2003 eHoliday Mood Study. Results of the study were revealed last Wednesday in a Shop.org presentation, at the Grand Hyatt New York, moderated by Chuck Davis, BizRate president and chief executive officer.

E-tailers of health and beauty aids, sporting goods, activewear and outdoor apparel and gear also racked up robust holiday gains in November and December. Health and beauty e-commerce sites transacted sales of $386 million in the two-month period, up 29 percent from a year earlier, while online sales of sporting and outdoor merchandise tallied a combined $295 million, up 25 percent.

Women account for nearly two-thirds of online holiday sales, or 63 percent, the study found.

Indeed, women’s share of online holiday sales transactions has climbed steadily since 1998 — the year Shop.org and BizRate began their study — when they transacted just 39 percent of the season’s business. In 1999, women produced 49 percent of online sales in the two-month period, a share that grew to 55 percent during holiday 2000; 56 percent in 2001, and 60 percent in 2002.

One constant has been the prevalence of high-income online shoppers: Between 1998 and 2003, roughly 41 percent of cybershoppers have had annual household income north of $75,000.

Replicating their patterns offline, women bought the most apparel online during holiday 2003, while men continued as the top purchasers of electronics and computer hardware.

Still, apparel saw at least one distinct shift this past holiday. “Apparel was a hit for both genders,” Davis recounted. “This was a new one for us. Men [posted] higher sales [than in the past],” he said without specifying.

Among the top 10 keyword searches online in November and December, Davis said, were Louis Vuitton, Movado, Gucci and Nike, while the 11th through 20th most popular searches included Seven Jeans and Crème de la Mer.

The eHoliday Mood Study further found:

  • A merchant’s own e-mail program was the most successful vehicle to drive customers to an e-commerce site.
  • More than half of online holiday shoppers, or 54 percent, were more deal-focused in 2003 than in the past.
  • One-fourth of cybershoppers are concerned about e-mail spam.
  • One-fifth of online shoppers consider lower product quality a form of merchant fraud.

As for deal-hunting, Davis said, holiday cybershoppers expected better discounts than they found online in 2002. “Forty percent [of those surveyed] went to a site because it had free shipping,” he stated.

Davis was joined in the presentation by a group of panelists who discussed the tactic of free shipping, among other issues. They were Bill Bass, who holds dual posts as senior vice president for e-commerce at Lands’ End and vice president and general manager at Sears Customer Direct; Ben Fischman, executive vice president for strategic development at online off-pricer SmartBargains Inc., and Larry Becker, vice president for new media at electronics specialist Crutchfield.

Too broad an offer of free shipping can hurt e-tailers more than help them, Fischman observed. “The customer gets trained to wait until the offer before shopping,” he said in referring to a pattern similar to the one that’s plagued highly promotional brick-and-mortar stores.

SmartBargains countered that mind-set this past holiday by cutting back on free shipping promotions, while still offering some special shipping deals, like price reductions on four-day deliveries.

Lands’ End, in contrast, has leveraged the power of its proprietary brand to avoid free shipping altogether, Bass related. “If you give free shipping, then you have to make it up elsewhere,” he pointed out. “Our view is that shipping [fees are] something you have to have. If you sell a proprietary label, it’s your own stuff and that gives you flexibility. We’re not high-low, but offer [merchandise] at the best price. With deflation in apparel prices, we’ve passed along the savings to our customers.”