'Tis the Season to Go Shopping - Online

It's an old American tradition: we stuff ourselves with turkey and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day, then rush out the next day to work off all those extra calories by engaging in a strenuous exercise called "Christmas shopping." Some particularly devoted souls have even been known to line up outside stores in the wee hours to ensure that they get in early on the sales. And each year, more and more stores accommodate them by opening earlier and earlier. This year, some electronics stores opened their doors at midnight and many others at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.

Despite the best efforts of retailers to woo customers on "Black Friday," (the Friday after Thanksgiving, so called because it is traditionally the day that retailers start operating "in the black," or at a profit), after an initial increase in sales over last year, there was actually a decrease from last year on the following day. This is according to statistics from the ShopperTrak Retail Traffic Index as reported here.

Other reports indicate that shopping traffic at some major retailers such as WalMart have actually dropped; in November they experienced for the the first time since 1996 a decline in sales at established stores compared to the previous year. Not that it's been a bad holiday season for retail outlets so far; according to the Washington Post and other sources, although shopping traffic is down, those who are out there in the trenches are spending more than ever before.

I just wonder how many people are foregoing the holiday shopping madness altogether and spending their money from the comfort of their desk chairs - making purchases online.

Forrester Research predicted back in October that this year's online holiday retail sales would hit $27 billion. On the anecdotal evidence front, many folks I know told me that they stayed far, far away from the malls on Thanksgiving weekend, having done as much of their shopping as possible early - and online.

One thing I've noticed about online shopping, including my own, is that there's no need to pack all your buying into one (or a few) special "trips." Although many etailers (electronic retailers) have attempted to promote Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, as the online equivalent of Black Friday, it hasn't really worked out that way. This shouldn't come as a big surprise. After all, one of the big advantages of online shopping is that you can do it when and where you want. See Cyber Monday, You're No Black Friday.

Another big advantage is that doing it online makes comparison shopping so much easier. After hours on your feet, fighting the crowds, you might very well suspect that the cool gadget you just decided to buy your aunt's daughter's neighbor's dog (number 287 on your shopping list) might be had for a few dollars less at another store across town, but a small savings isn't likely to seem worth the drive. Online shoppers need only click around to different web sites to find the best price.

There are other logistical benefits to buying online. No more need to haul a big bunch of gifts home from the store (risking the theft of those already purchased if you stop at another store along the way), laboriously wrapping and labeling them, and then hauling them across town or across the country to deliver to their recipients. When you order online, you can have the present wrapped and sent directly to the giftee.

Of course, there are drawbacks to online shopping, too - for both customers and retailers. The latter experienced the problem of network congestion on Black Friday itself, when WalMart and Macy's both had their web sites slow down to a crawl on that day. You can read more about that here.

For shoppers, online buying requires at least a little planning ahead - if you want to make sure the gifts actually arrive on time. And of course, you can't plop down cash; shopping online generally requires you to use a credit or debit card or some other method such as PayPal whereby you have to establish an account. There's also going to be a record of your purchase, something that makes some privacy advocates uncomfortable.

If you're worried about the security risks of online purchases, though, you probably shouldn't. A recent Gartner report finds that most e-commerce sites are more secure than the average physical retail establishment's Point of Sale (POS) systems. Makes sense to me. I've always worried when a sales clerk or waiter disappeared into a back room with my credit card, much more so than when I entered the card number on an encrypted web site.

Security and practicality aside, some people say all the convenience and efficiency of online shopping takes some of the holiday spirit out of Christmas, and maybe it does. Do my gifts really deserve to be appreciated if I didn't suffer appropriately to procure them? Will I feel guilty if I don't go through the rituals, especially that glazed-eyed last foray through the aisles on the day before Christmas, frantic that I've surely forgotten something for someone? Will my life be less full if I don't experience the pushing and shoving and standing for hours in line?

I'm willing to risk it. Much as the commercials and ads have tried to convince me, I never quite bought the idea that shopping 'til you drop is an integral element of the season. At this point in my life, I pretty much have all the "things" that I want or need. And the kids are all grown up, no grandchildren are on the horizon, so there are no little ones to shower with toys. This year, in fact, we took a different tact and instead of giving nicely wrapped presents, we paid for a Christmas-time vacation for ourselves and the kids. We'll have lots of good dinners, see the sights (without the big crowds), and there'll be no messy house to clean up afterward. And of course, we made all the reservations and bought all the tickets online.

Time together is always the most precious gift of all, and this year that is more evident than ever. My daughter, who's in the Navy, just found out that she's being deployed to Afghanistan. She leaves in January, so this Christmas season is a special one, and I don't want to waste any of it shopping.

Tell us what you think about online vs. "bricks and mortar" shopping, especially during the holidays. Do you do your Christmas shopping "out there" in the retail jungle, online, a combination of both, or neither (maybe you're lucky enough to have someone else do it all for you). Do you have concerns about the security of online transactions? Is it easier or more difficult to find what you want online? Do you think less of a gift you receive that was delivered directly from an online vendor?