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WINDOWS SHOPPING
RATHER THAN WAITING IN LINE, MORE HOLIDAY SHOPPERS ARE HEADING ONLINE TO MAKE THEIR PURCHASES

Christmas trees, sparkling lights and holiday music are back, making mall shopping merrier. Yet there are those among us who still resist, choosing not to leave the house to hunt down holiday gifts.

For some, being able to scan shelves and racks for just the right present is not worth the battle for a parking spot and squeezing through throngs of shoppers. Not with the massive increase in online shopping opportunities in recent years.

A research company has estimated that 86 million Americans will sit at a computer this year and tap their way to the perfect red cardigan for Aunt Mary and just the right tin of candied pecans for Uncle Bob. Type in the credit card number, press a button, and the frazzling business can be done in minutes.

Elenora Heffner got hooked five or six years ago when her son asked her for ski equipment and gave her an accompanying list of Web addresses.

"I did all of his Christmas shopping in the course of a couple of hours," she said. "Maybe I could have driven all over Western New York looking for these things, but I didn't have to."

After online shopping started to take off in the mid-1990s, it has swept up consumers. The projected sales this year may total up to $21.6 billion, according to JupiterResearch. The number of online shoppers is projected to rise by 12 percent: from the 73 million of last year to 83 million.

"Online commerce has grown at a blistering pace for the last umpteen years," said David Heim, Consumer Reports' deputy editor of special sections. The last time technology spawned a comparably rapid change, he said, was the 19th century's telegraph.

Analysts have noticed how people don't necessarily give up one kind of shopping for another; they like both for different reasons.

For one thing, online shopping doesn't work as a last-minute strategy.

"You need to give yourself at least two weeks," said Heim. Even that doesn't always pan out. Heim recalled ordering from a museum gift shop. When the box arrived, it contained the wrong things. The shop couldn't help with a speedy exchange in time for Christmas, because the shipping department was closed.

He has since been forgiven.

"They were my kids," he said. "They understood."

The National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C., has found that shoppers' love affair with the Web can be a cure for some procrastinators. It used to be that most people waited until Thanksgiving, said Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the retail-lobbying group.

Now, some 42 percent start before Halloween. Another 18 percent get to work before September. That may be because the online process is pleasant enough to look forward to, said Tolley.

People say they like having purchases dropped off at their doorstep. Online, it's easy to comparison shop for the best price. Sales happen online, too.

From local to global

As for local shops, the Web can be an advantage: Traditional stores can now have a second location - on the Internet. Some stores let local customers order big items online before heading over to simply pick up a purchase that's already been paid for, as Heffner did with a microwave at Rosa's Home Appliances.

For her, it was a nice merging of traditional and online.

"I hate being out there with all those crowds bumping into each other," Heffner said.

Still, there are times when she'll shop the old-fashioned way.

"If I don't know what I want," she said, "I will go and browse."

Local shops are working to be sure they can be found online and at their street addresses. Next year, the Forever Elmwood neighborhood and business association is planning to launch a cooperative online shopping Web site, said Robert Franke, the group's executive director.

At this time of year, Gordon Pellegrinetti admits he appreciates having an alternative.

"It may be a male trait that I would rather poke my eyes out than be in a department store around the holidays," the Buffalo engineer wrote by e-mail.

Online, he buys things that don't need to be tried on, such as books. It's also the best way to mail to distant friends and save the trouble of packing and mailing himself. And when he's not sure where to start, search engines make research painless.

Shopping online is so easy, he guesses that some gift givers may disappoint with obvious lack of effort.

"Online gift certificates are the ultimate new millennium, hands-off gift giving," Pellegrinetti wrote, before making a joke.

For those who hate shopping of all kinds, giving online might lead too easily to a perfunctory gift certificate. Yet, he considered: Maybe the people prone to dull choices were making unimaginative selections even before the online shopping revolution.

"If you're that lazy and interdependent," Pellegrinetti wrote, "you probably won't be reading the newspaper for gift ideas."

Unique opportunity

California-based Hillary Mendelsohn argues online shopping has the potential to make presents more interesting, not less.

"I think you can become a more creative gift giver," said the author of "The Purplebook: The Definitive Guide to Exceptional Online Shopping" (Bantam, $25), which lists about 17,000 sites.

Before she started researching, she said, the options seemed limited.

"I was a frustrated online shopper," she admitted.

Now, to stay on top of the coolest options within the burgeoning online-shopping world, Mendelsohn reads seven newspapers a day and 47 magazines a month.

Reviewing and listing places that charm her with interesting choices and good service has led to happy results for her loved ones: She has found a cashmere travel blanket that her mother now takes with her on every plane trip. Her daughter has an antique locket with a tiny diamond that she adores.

Mendelsohn has even given away a whimsical certificate to some real estate on the moon to a friend who had everything.

"He was completely crazy about it, because it was so original," she said. "Those are things that you can't necessarily get when you're shopping on the snow-covered streets of your town."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com