The earliest internet sites to offer goods for sale - known as e-commerce - concentrated on small items that could be sent through the post. Most of the early customers at US-based sites were looking for goods not available in the UK. The net was, and still is, a good place to track down lesser- known American books and CDs.
Now, as more UK retailers realise the potential offered by the internet, the picture is changing. Here's how to save cash on your shopping, without having to brave the high street.
Several web-based stores offer products ranging from personal stereos to built-in cookers and fridges at highly competitive prices. Most offer free delivery, sometimes the next day. 21Store specialises in gadgets including minidisc players, digital cameras and camcorders.The site is currently running a sale, with discounts of around 10 per cent.
Home Electrical Direct has a wider range, including domestic appliances. HED prices cover delivery, and there is a nine-month interest-free credit option. The company promises to beat any rivals' prices by 110 per cent, meaning that if you spot the same item cheaper elsewhere after buying through HED, the site will refund 110 per cent of its selling price.
HED is significantly cheaper than most high-street outlets. The popular Dyson DC01 vacuum cleaner is pounds 159.99 against pounds 199.99 on the high street. As a very rough rule, prices appear to be 15 to 20 per cent below the stores.
Value Direct has been operating as a mail-order business for some time, but it now has one of the most comprehensive electrical goods stores on the net. The company claims to have more than 5,000 products on offer and, like HED, there is a 110 per cent price promise.
It is also one of the cheapest places to buy built-in appliances. The home delivery market for kitchen hardware is well- established - few buyers want to take home a dishwasher, and most retailers carry only limited stocks - so internet ordering makes sense. Value Direct can supply a Neff Circotherm built-in oven for pounds 525.95. The equivalent unit costs pounds 575 at B&Q, which is already one of the cheaper outlets.
Using search engines such as Yahoo! or Excite will produce several sites. Even if they cannot accept orders over the internet, specialists may display their catalogues online or give quotes by e-mail or over the phone.
For some products, like cameras or computer equipment, the best savings are in the US, where companies such as B&H Cameras can undercut British dealers even after duty and VAT are added. One word of caution, though: warranties are not automatic on American purchases. Closer to home, stores such as Richer Sounds are a good bet for bargains.
One of the best sites is run by Sofa and Sofabeds, which has three stores in London and one in Glasgow. The company sells both built-to-order and ready-made sofas, armchairs and sofabeds ranging from around pounds 400 to well over pounds 1,000.
There is an interactive "virtual sofa" that can display each model in a choice of fabrics, an on-line order form and, as an added incentive, a pounds 50 discount for enquiries originating on the internet. Sensibly, this applies even if you order in a store; the company realises that no web site, however efficient, substitutes for a real-life sitting test. For cheaper options, mail-order specialists Viva Sofa and Oakridge Direct are also online.
Travel is one of the net's strongest suits; there is no need to visit a travel agent ever again.
Airline websites offer some special deals. EasyJet gives a pound off each single ticket for web sales and lets you search for the cheapest flight. For consistently good deals on air tickets, hotels and car hire, turn to one of the two large, US-based travel sites with UK branches: Travelocity or Microsoft's Expedia. A flight to New York should be at least pounds 40 below the lowest advertised fare. The best deals, though, need booking in advance. For a quick getaway, try Lastminute.com. The site is exactly what the name suggests: if you're ready to travel, the deals are hard to beat.
n Web sites: 21 Store, www.21- store.com; B & H (New York), www.bhphotovideo.com; Davies Electrics, www.davies-electrics.co.uk; easyJet, www.- easyjet.com; Home Electrical Direct, www.hed.co.uk; Last Minute, www.last-minute.com; Microsoft Expedia, www.expedia.co.uk; Oakridge, www.- oakridge.co.uk; Richer Sounds, www.richersounds.com; Sofas and Sofabeds, www.sofabeds.- co.uk; Travelocity, www.travel- ocity.co.uk; Value Direct, www.value-direct.co.uk; Viva, www.vivasofa.co.uk