Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — Apparel sales showed flashes of brilliance on the Internet last month, suggesting fashion might still emerge as one of the brighter e-commerce sectors in cyberspace this holiday.
At least that’s the impression made by a couple of September online sales reports released Tuesday.
One of them, via Nielsen/Net Ratings, showed apparel sales transacted online with consumers in September tallied $494 million, marking gains of 5 percent from August and 79 percent from September 2000, when they were $276 million. By Forrester Research’s count, apparel sales on the Internet reached $288 million last month, a 10 percent hop over sales of $263 million in August.
Those results made apparel the month’s second-best selling category of merchandise online, after travel services ($1.1 billion), according to N/NR, and the third-best in Forrester’s universe, following travel services ($1.4 billion) and computer hardware ($400 million).
The fly in the virtual ointment, however, is September’s status as a significant period of back-to-school clothing purchasing — and that cyclical trend might have hidden what some observers fear will be a steep drop-off in apparel gift-giving this holiday. Those concerns turn on apparel’s relatively expensive price tag, compared with smaller-ticket items such as CDs and books, given consumers’ shaken confidence at the hands of ongoing large-scale layoffs and last month’s terrorist attacks.
“Apparel is a category that can easily get hit when consumers decide to defer certain purchases or to spend less,” noted Sean Kaldor, Net Ratings vice president of analytical research. “At the same time, there is no reason for apparel to feel a disproportionate amount of impact online, unless people spend less overall on the Internet.” And because apparel remained the second-biggest e-commerce category in September, according to N/NR, Kaldor expects cybershoppers hunting for apparel bargains on the Web will outnumber those eliminating the category from gift lists altogether this holiday, a period Milpitas, Calif.-based N/NR defines as November and December.
Overall sales to U.S. consumers online in September climbed 54 percent to $4.74 billion from $3.08 billion in September 2000, as the number of purchasers rose 25 percent to 38.6 million from 30.9 million, according to N/NR. Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester found online B2C transactions came to $4 billion last month, off 5 percent from sales of $4.2 billion a year ago.
With the fresh figures in mind, Forrester anticipates six million new households will start shopping the Internet this holiday and on Tuesday reaffirmed its sales forecast of $11 billion for the season, up 10 percent from holiday 2000. “September was the worst environment at retail in a long time, so it wasn’t surprising to see online sales drop 15 percent from August,” Kaldor contended. “But we were expecting a worse figure, and year-over-year growth of 54 percent is healthy. We are making our online holiday forecast next week, and we are anticipating growth of about 50 percent.”