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High street to hell, or have a nice day?

If you want to shop but you don't want to drop, just sit at the computer and place your order. US cyberstores will serve you, says Dido Sandler
You need to buy a birthday present for your partner. Would you rather: (a) go shopping in town on a crowded Saturday afternoon; or (b) get dragged through a hedge backwards?

If your answer is (b), and you have access to the Internet, take heart. Thousands of Net sites are springing up to allow people like you to go shopping from the comfort of your own desktop.

Almost anything you can buy through conventional mail-order you can acquire by simply pointing your mouse and clicking. So far the most popular purchases by UK surfers have been CDs, wine and flowers. This demonstrates that consumers don't necessarily need to see or touch such products to make a decision, and that typical Net users - male, aged 25 to 40 with high disposable incomes - are more inclined to buy these items.

Financial companies are also getting interested in Net sales, although most financial sites simply provide information. In future you may even be able to forget about going out to the supermarket, and let someone else deal with the stress.

Net shopping doesn't just save time and hassle. Canny shoppers can also save money. Nick Agarwal, a UK surfer, orders his CDs from Music Boulevard in the US (www.musicblvd.com). He buys his CDs for $11 to $12, or approximately pounds 7. Shipping costs mean a further $10 flat charge, making it most economic to wait until he wants to buy a number of CDs and then placing one order. Normally the courier who delivers the CDs also collects the VAT (17.5 per cent) and import duty. On CDs the duty is equivalent to 4.1 per cent of purchase price (including VAT), although packages sometimes get through Customs without being taxed.

Delivery takes just two days and Mr Agarwal gets confirmation of the order by e-mail.

US cybershops live up to the hi-tech image of the Net but most UK shops are further behind. Richard Longhurst, editor of Internet magazine .net, says you can often receive goods more rapidly from US cybershops by airmail than you can from the Argos Netsite in the UK. In a recent test Mr Longhurst received his KGB watch from www.sovietski.com in the US faster than the Power Ranger alarm clock he ordered from Argos.

Some US sites offer a massive choice - for example, Amazon Books (www.amazon.com) offers over one million titles out of a warehouse just outside Seattle. Its low overheads mean it can afford to offer discounts of between 10 and 40 per cent on shop prices. But it may only make sense for UK consumers buying expensive books, bulk purchases or works simply not available here, given the shipping costs. These come in at $4 per shipment plus $1.95 per book, and delivery takes six weeks, although there is no VAT or import duty to pay. (Note that import duty rates vary according to the goods.)

US cybershops are also good for specialist items - paints for glass-painters, or design-your-own T-shirts (www.t-shirtoutlet.com), where you can actually try different sizes and colours in a dressing room on the site. Virtual Vineyards (www.virtualvin.com/) offers speciality Californian food and wines. But beware the wines. Shipping to the UK costs $45 for the first bottle, with an additional $5.50 for extra bottles ($105.50 per case), on top of which there will be duty if you import more than two bottles.

Of the UK business sites, Thomas Cook Compuserve has late travel offers such as those you would find on Ceefax. And in November the Consumers' Association, publisher of Which?, will unveil a site aimed at allowing consumers to club together to negotiate group discounts on anything from washing machines to cars and package holidays.

The bulk of UK Internet commerce takes place on virtual shopping centres, such as Barclaysquare (www.itl.net/barclaysquare), Great Universal Stores (ShoppersUniverse.com), Buckingham Gate and the Compuserve mall. Barclaysquare hosts a wide range of high-street shops, including wine from Sainsbury's and Victoria Wine, selected products from the Argos catalogue, some kitsch bouquets from Interflora, monstrous kids' electronic games from Toys 'R' Us, and car insurance quotations from Royal & Sun Alliance.

Simon Holderness, Royal & Sun Alliance's electronic projects distribution manager, says Net sales of financial services have been relatively limited so far. In the next few years, however, he expects a huge leap in financial services' sales as access to the Net through digital TV operators like BSkyB finally turns the worldwide web into a mass-market phenomenon in the UK.

For this reason most large financial services providers are already on the Net, giving information about their wares. Some, like insurer Admiral, give a pounds 6 discount for motor quotes from the Net. Others follow the Royal & Sun Alliance route and give quotes via e-mail on simpler types of policy such as motor, home, and travel insurance. Investors can also buy shares on-line, through ESI Sharelink (www.esi.co.uk).

The key concern holding up Internet commerce is security, or the lack of it. The shopping malls all operate using secure merchant servers, which allow people to hand over credit card numbers with relative confidence, given that the numbers are encrypted to avoid them being picked up by anyone other than the business they are dealing with. But other sites may be less secure.

Always look for the little key in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. If the key is broken, you should be wary of handing over your card details.

If in doubt about the security of a site however, you can always give the company your card number by phone. This will also help if you are unsure about the site itself.