The numbers say it all. We will spend some 14bn shopping online in the run-up to Christmas this year that's around 370 for every adult in the UK. Over the past five years, the number of people surfing for gifts has increased by 17.3 million to 28.3 million nearly half of the UK's population. And, according to IMRG, the e-tailing trade body, online spending is set to grow by half as much again this holiday season.
But where do you start researching your way to a cheaper Christmas? With thousands of websites to choose from, it's often hard to know where to look for the best value. Here, we take a look at a few of the biggest and best websites and provide some tips on how to make the most out of the web at Christmas.
HIGH STREET RETAILERS ONLINE
If you are still unsure about leaving the real world behind you, an easy first step on the web is to find the website of your favourite high-street names.
A huge number of retailers have now jumped on to the world wide bandwagon, and in many cases, their prices online are much more competitive than the ones you'll get in store.
Argos is a giant in this field, integrating its online ordering facilities with the bricks and mortar stores, allowing you to pre-order the items before going into the store to pick them up in person.
Sites such as marksandspencer.com, next.co.uk, currys.co.uk and hmv.co.uk are amongst the most popular high street names with successful web businesses.
PRICE COMPARISON SITES
The beauty of price comparison sites is that, in theory, they can do all the hard work for you when you know what it is you are shopping for online. They purport to bring you prices from a broad a range of source retailers and wholesalers, often including auction sites. Unfortunately, these sites are not always quite as comprehensive, or accurate, as they make themselves out to be. However, the larger the number of retailers and variety of sources they use, the more likely it is that you will be able to snap up a bargain.
Kelkoo.co.uk, Shopping.com and Pricerunner.co.uk are among the most comprehensive. Others, such as Pricegrabber UK, and Shopping.zdnet.co.uk, focus on electronic equipment, while the likes of Find-dvd.co.uk, Search-dvd, 123 PriceCheck, Onlinepriceguide.co.uk, and even Amazon.co.uk tend to specialise in low price CDs, books, DVDs and video games. Although Amazon.co.uk is principally a direct retailer in its own right, it also offers most products from a selection of other retailers and private sellers.
Remember that comparison sites earn their income from commercial relationships, either by being paid for each click through or by hosting adverts on their web pages. Make sure the results you are getting are fair, and bear in mind that any prices coming from online auctions are likely to change. Be certain of the criteria the software uses to gauge rankings, especially over electronic or sporting goods, where your wish list is likely to be very specific.
A new website, Twenga.co.uk which refers to itself as a next-generation shopping search engine recently launched, with a view to eliminating the confusion which continues to reign for most shoppers on the web. It claims to be one of the only truly impartial shopping sites, listing results purely on the basis of relevance, and not due to commercial relationships.
Fears about parting with your card details are the biggest concern about shopping online, and with all these options you must be confident of your security. Richard Brown, chief executive of Moneynet.co.uk, a personal finance data comparison site, warns: "Whilst you're unlikely to get mugged at your computer in the traditional sense, you could be vulnerable to online fraud if you don't take a few basic precautions.
"Reputable comparison sites vet the websites they direct you to, but before entering your credit card details, check you are in a secure area by looking for the secure padlock icon or "https" prefix on the web address. If the purchase price is for 100 or more it's possible to claim from the card provider should anything go wrong."
Another way to snag a great bargain at Christmas is by shopping around on an online auction site. Contrary to popular belief, if you decide to go down this route, eBay is not your only choice. In fact, this growing sector is fast becoming the bane of the charity shop, as everyone tries to offload their unwanted clutter for the chance of a cash return, using sites such as eBid, CQout, QXL and Tazbar as well as the ever-popular eBay.
But auction sites are not just a place to pick up other people's unwanted second- hand items. Many small retailers use eBay as their principal distribution mechanism, while it's also very common for private sellers to offload new unwanted gifts at knockdown prices.
Most auction sites offer a variety of ways to pay for the items you "win", including secure third-party electronic transfers such as PayPal. But trust plays a big factor here because payment is made first, and although in the vast majority of cases everything goes smoothly, there are plenty of anecdotes circulating about payment being made and items not turning up.
Always check the seller's reputation for some reassurance, and before you bid, find out what form of payment the seller will accept. If it's only cheques or money orders, decide whether you are willing to take the risk of sending your payment before you receive the product. If possible, pay by credit card as it will give you the greatest protection.
Consumer Direct, a government-funded consumer advice service, suggests the big sticking points are that "as a buyer, you may not really know whom you are dealing with or where they are based. You have fewer rights when you buy privately, whether through a small ad in a newspaper or at an internet auction. In a private sale, the goods must be as described, but a seller who is not acting as a business is not covered by the rules on satisfactory quality and fitness for purpose. If you have a problem, it could be harder to get it put right than if you bought from a shop."
Some auction websites or third-party processors offer complaints-resolution processes or anti-fraud guarantees. Not all do though, so read the terms and conditions.
It's also well worth asking questions before you bid. A good seller will always welcome enquiries. Do your homework, too and check the description, type of model and retail price of the goods. And be wary if the price looks too good to be true it usually is. If it's a collectable item, take steps to confirm it is authentic. Know how much you are willing to pay, stick to it, and think whether you are getting value for money. Once a price is accepted, you will be expected to pay, so don't get carried away.
Although it's now possible to enlist the help of a so-called "sniping" service that places a bid for you at the last possible moment automatically to ensure you win your bid, this could ensure you end up paying over the odds.
Niche ways of saving you cash online are evolving all the time, and services such as voucher code websites are increasingly popular. Myvouchercodes.co.uk seems to have led this particular stampede, and offers simple online retail lists that provide you with a discount code to enter along with your card details once you have decided what you want from where. They will even open a link to the retailers' website for you.
If all this sounds like your kind of shopping solution, you had better get on with it. Going electronic with your shopping means you could be buying from anywhere in the world, and you won't be popular if gifts don't arrive until mid January.
Having said that, if you're ordering from a UK online retailer, last delivery dates are getting later every year. Amazon's last Christmas order date for free delivery is 18 December, but if you're willing to pay, it says you can make orders right up to 8.30am on Christmas Eve, and still receive them by the end of the day.
Five tips for safe online shopping
* Only give card details if the site displays the secure padlock icon
* Print and keep copies of receipts and order numbers until the goods have arrived
* Use a credit card for purchases over 100 for extra protection against fraud
* Does the site give an address and landline contact phone number? If not, steer clear
* Check delivery dates and be sure the item is in stock some sites may take payment for goods that are not currently available for dispatch