With roughly nine million Britons connected to the Internet, this year many could conduct their Christmas shopping sprees electronically. Thousands of sites offer "e-commerce" - with everything from the turkey to toys just a few mouse clicks away.
A recent survey by Dell Computer and Louis Harris & Associates found 43 per cent of British computer owners planned to buy something online this Christmas.
Wendy Grossman, an American-born journalist and Internet commentator, reckons online shopping has a lot going for it: "I've bought gifts for my friends this way for the past couple of years. You can get things that you would spend hours searching for on the high street by just putting a few words into the computer." However, The Independent's experience suggests that while buying presents on the Internet may be easier on the legs, slow and badly designed websites often make it exhausting or frustrating.
It is the web equivalent of queuing at the check-out and the best solution is to kill time by making a cup of tea.
To start a shopping spree on the Net, all you need is a computer, modem, Internet connection, browser program such as Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer, and a credit card. Card numbers can be protected when sent over the Net, although it is best to trust only sites which set up a "secure" link at some stage in the transaction. And you can back out of the transaction at any stage.
Buying all your Christmas supplies is no problem if you are already a member of Tesco's Internet experiment. The company says thousands of customers are using the Net to order goods from a number of its stores, which are delivered by van to their homes. The trial started in September 1996 and in the past two years many of the bugs have been ironed out of the system.
But potential customers are advised not to log on to the site in a panic two days before Christmas in the hope of preventing a famine. "Last year every delivery slot was filled up a week before Christmas," said a Tesco spokesman. "They are half-hour slots throughout the day, so it is limited."
However, a hamper stuffed with food, wine and cheese is easily available from Marketnet (www.mkn.co.uk), which promises delivery in two days.
Browsing further, all the Christmas favourites - books, clothes, records and toys - are available in cyberspace. Choosing presents on the Net might seem as difficult as the real thing, but Ms Grossman lists a number of advantages.
"If I'm going to spend Christmas in the US, I can get presents delivered from US websites to friends over there, rather than taking them on the plane from England," she said. "The online stores are getting so organised. Nowadays most will come up and their front page offers you a search slot."
The searches can be refined, so that the Star Wars fan does not end up with something that would only please a Star Trekkie. Prices can also be better.
"If you're buying something big and expensive it pays to shop around," said Ms Grossman. "Sites like Yahoo! put shops together in categories, so you can compare prices."
But items such as sound equipment, she suggests, are unsuited to online shopping: "You want to see what it looks like, and whether the manual is written in English, and what it sounds like. Buying a Walkman, you want to see it and hold it in your hand before deciding."
All I Want...
Christmas shopping: What and where to get something for your:
Favourite man: Cashmere sweater (pounds 175 + pounds 4 p&p) from Charles Tyrwhitt of Jermyn St at www.ctshirts.co.uk
Less favourite man: Wool socks (pounds 7.50 +pounds 4 p&p). Also at www.ctshirts.co.uk
Favourite woman: Delia Lingerie body corselet (pounds 41.99 + pounds 2.50 p&p) at www.alpha.mkn.co.uk/ lingerie
Less favourite woman: Delia Smith's How To Cook (pounds 10.19 + pounds 2.45 p&p) from Amazon books at www.amazon.co.uk
Favourite teenager: Hand-picked CD of 17 Beck songs not found on any album (pounds 9.55 + pounds 3 p&p) from US-based CDuctive.com at www.cductive.com
Less favourite teenager: Mellow Gold, Beck's first album (pounds 9.99 + pounds 2.50 p&p) from HMV at www.hmv.co.uk
For all the family: Entire Christmas shopping from Tesco (www.tesco.co.uk), though make sure you order at least a week before Christmas to get a delivery slot. Or try Sainsbury's (www.sainsburys.co.uk) which offers delivery from 27 stores nationwide, though you have to spend up to three hours in a store registering your standard "shopping list".Reuse content