Shoppers enjoy `cyber Christmas' as high street proves too expensive

HIGH PRICES, crowds and rude shop assistants are causing Christmas shoppers to turn away from the high street and on to the Internet, according to a survey released yesterday.

Shoppers benefit from lower prices on the Internet than in shops, with some sites offering to refund more than the whole price of any goods if a high-street shop regularly sells the item cheaper.

Hundreds of people are already taking advantage of the fact to buy household goods such as washing machines and DVD players. One site, www.empiredirect.co.uk, gets 18,000 visitors per week, of whom 10 per cent buy its household goods, such as washing machines, microwave ovens and DVD players. One washing machine is pounds 45 cheaper, even with shipping costs, than the same model bought from the Curry's chain - although the chain runs "voucher schemes" which can undercut it briefly.

"Without the overheads of high-street retailers, we are able to guarantee to beat any high-street price by up to 30 per cent," said Amarjit Singh, sales director of Leeds-based Empire Direct. But a spokeswoman for Dixons Stores Group, which owns Dixons, Curry's, PC World, The Link and @jakarta, said: "The Internet can act as a magnet for people who will then come into stores. In some cases people browse on the Net, then buy in stores." Prices would only vary in the short term, she said: "You will always find some places selling some things cheaper for a brief time."

But the survey, carried out by the research group National Opinion Polls (NOP), showed that shoppers may be getting weary of high-street shopping. For the survey 1,000 shoppers were polled, and it was found that shoppers aged 15 to 24 cited high prices as the worst part of buying goods in shops. Significantly, that is the age group most likely to resort to the Internet for shopping instead.

Peter Baily, marketing director at the online retailer bigsave.com, which commissioned the NOP survey, said: "This will be the first true cyber Christmas experience, thanks to the explosion of online retailing and greater public awareness of the Internet."

Even after packing and shipping costs (which can be significant) are added, goods bought on the Net can still work out cheaper than those bought on the High Street.

Crowds, poor service and parking problems combine to make shopping one of the most stressful aspects of the festive season, according to those questioned by NOP. Yet only 36 per cent said they liked the flexibility, ease and convenience of shopping at any hour by computer - suggesting that online retailers still have some way to go to persuade potential customers to log on.

Some sites offer online comparisons of prices, such as www.valuemad.com. Such comparative shopping is forecast to rise rapidly, as greater access to the Net makes it easier to shop online.

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