Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — There’s at least one bright light piercing the pall that’s been clouding fashion’s prospects this holiday: Internet behemoth America Online disclosed Friday that it facilitated apparel, accessories and jewelry sales totaling $890 million during September.
That amounted to an eye-catching 33 percent of the $2.7 billion in e-tail sales transacted by AOL’s U.S. members last month, up from $1.7 billion during September 2000. For the third quarter, AOL members spent roughly $7.9 billion online at the portal’s e-tail partners, a 6 percent hop over the prior-year period.
“We believe this [fourth] quarter will be very strong,” forecast Katherine Borsecnik, president of AOL brand programming at Dulles, Va.-based America Online. “We see several trends that increase the appeal of shopping online. First, people are thinking hard about the gifts they’re giving this year and the online medium is great for research. Second, there has always been a hassle factor in shopping in stores and malls, but this year, the hassle factor includes personal safety as well,” Borsecnik added. “So, it’s possible more people will be inclined to shop from home.”
Feeding the growth in AOL’s shopping activity has been the addition of more than 80 e-tail partners since June — including such style players as Polo Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus, Ann Taylor, Kohl’s and New Balance — along with the heavy customer traffic at the megaportal, which accounts for about half of all online sales volume, according to Milpitas, Calif.-based Nielsen/Net Ratings. In September, for example, consumer spending on e-commerce jumped 54 percent from the previous year to tally $4.7 billion, according to N/NR, with AOL facilitating $2.7 billion of those cyber-purchases. AOL had 81.1 million visitors last month, according to Internet consultant Jupiter Media Metrix, which just last Thursday said it will be acquired by Nielsen/Net Ratings.
Aiming to build on that momentum during the next two months, AOL is:
Implementing several new features to make it easier to shop the portal, such as an electronic shopping list that allows users to save products on a wish list that can be shared with family and friends.
Adding an enhanced search function that enables shoppers to search online for brick-and-mortar stores in their areas, and check on the availability of certain items at those locations.
Launching a Deal of the Day area to cater to users’ growing penchant for bargains, and an America Holiday Values area, where visitors will find suggestions for patriotic gift giving, special offers, red-white-and-blue themed merchandise, and suggestions for charitable donations.
As for her outlook for the apparel sector online, Borsecnik said: “Our number-one holiday category has traditionally been apparel, which we expect to remain strong. We expect that licensed products, led by the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings merchandise, will be especially popular this year,” she projected. “We’re also seeing a huge upswing in digital photography, with digital cameras [now available] at affordable prices.”
According to Jupiter Media Metrix, 67 percent of Internet shoppers actually complete their purchases at an offline location.
“Since most purchases occur within 20 miles of the home, localized shopping is an increasing focus for us,” Borsecnik pointed out. For example, she said, “Visitors to our partner CompUSA’s site cannot only research products but also see whether these products are actually in stock at their local CompUSA store. Or, shoppers can order on AOL but choose to pick up the merchandise locally at a CompUSA store. At Barnes & Noble, Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic online stores, shoppers can buy online but return merchandise locally.”