Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — When holiday selling began in earnest last month, Web watchers expected online sales to expand at a low double-digit clip, overall, with a few exceptions — notably, apparel, which was seen as the likely star among small-ticket B2C categories in cyberspace.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Internet.
As it’s now shaping up, apparel, a best-selling sector online for the past couple of years, is running the deepest holiday-revenue declines versus a year ago, by percentage, among a dozen categories tracked by Los Angeles-based, comparison-shopping site For the period beginning Nov. 11 and continuing through Dec. 18, B2C sales of apparel on the Internet fell off 11 percent to $427.3 million, from sales of $478.92 million, a year earlier.
Compelled by the sluggish U.S. economy, the nation’s post-9/11 hangover, and fierce offline promotions mounted by their brick-and-mortar cousins, apparel e-tailers have gone on a price-cutting binge that has kept cybershoppers coming to their Web sites, but eroded top-line gains. “Price decreases at e-tail sites account for about 7 percentage points of the 11 percent decline in apparel sales online this season,” Chuck Davis, BizRate’s president and chief executive officer, told WWD. “We believe the warm weather played into that, as did aggressive sales promotions at the stores.”
So far, apparel sales on the Internet this holiday peaked Dec. 10, when they reached $18.7 million, Davis said, while noting that the fashion category’s trend line tends to stay fairly flat during the season. On Tuesday, Dec. 18, by comparison, sales of apparel online hit $13.5 million. In contrast, toys, games, and computers are typically purchased early in the holiday season, because shoppers are concerned about being able to find hot items. Food, wine, flowers and gifts usually start selling strongly after December 10.
Those patterns help explain why sales of consumer electronics online through Dec. 18 are up 113 percent over holiday 2000, totaling $733.2 million — the season’s biggest percentage gainer. Electronics were followed by sales of toys and games, up 70 percent to $259.4 million; office supplies, adding 68 percent to $54 million, and computer hardware, advancing 50 percent to $1.1 billion.
In seasons past, electronics have e-tailed well, largely because of the strong presence of male shoppers on the Web. This year, it’s a different story according to Davis, who credited digital cameras — holiday’s hottest-selling item — for the steep spike. Women are doing most of the cyber-buying overall, accounting for 57 percent of the season’s online purchasers. By comparison, women constituted 54 percent of online buyers during holiday 2000; 45 percent in 1999, and 39 percent of them in the 1998 season.
“In the last week, we’ve seen a big pop in the gifts and flowers category,” Davis noted in a phone interview Wednesday. This Monday, for example, the 10 most searched for gift and flowers items via BizRate’s engine were: gift items; candles; Rolex; flowers; Movado; Omega; rings; Cartier; Casio, and Harry Potter. And among two-dozen or so leading keywords submitted to BizRate’s apparel search engine a day later were: Tommy Hilfiger; pajamas; diamond; jacket; watches; Swiss Army; Pulsar; Citizen; Diesel; opal; Roxy; SAS; Mudd Jeans; prom dress; swimsuits; Fendi; Omega; Nike; Tag Heuer; Fossil; Coach, and Kenneth Cole.
Apparel hasn’t provided the only cyber surprise this holiday.
The low double-digit holiday growth envisioned for e-tailers just a month ago has been significantly stronger, advancing 31 percent between Nov. 11 and Dec. 18 to tally $5.5 billion, compared with $4.2 billion a year ago, according to BizRate. Davis projected Wednesday that holiday sales online will reach about $6.3 billion, excluding travel services, assuming they maintain their 31 percent growth rate. For holiday 2000, sales on the Internet came to $4.8 billion, by BizRate’s count, which marked a 60 percent surge over sales of $3 billion during holiday 1999.
“Sales online are growing at about half the rate of last year, but the overall trend line is unmistakably up,” Davis observed. “This is an industry that won’t go away — and the reason is convenience.”

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