US online sales rise 29% to $146.5bn

Americans bought more clothing and shoes online last year than computers and software in a sign of the growing mainstream acceptance of internet retailing.

Shop.org, part of the National Retail Federation, estimated that clothing sales reached $18.3bn in 2006 compared with the $17.2bn spent on computers. The group’s annual survey of US e-commerce said sales, excluding travel, rose 29 per cent to $146.5bn.

Sucharita Mulpuru, retail analyst at Forrester Research, who led the report, said clothing sales benefited from free delivery and returns incentives.

She also noted the spread of features that improved customers’ ability to assess products online, such as zoom and rotate features, and reviews and ratings by previous buyers.

However, the report again highlighted the low percentage of people who proceed from entering a site to a purchase, with conversion rates remaining about 3 per cent, and the high percentage of transactions that are abandoned after products have been put in virtual shopping baskets.

Ms Mulpuru said that, with surveys showing about a third of online shoppers had problems with transactions, “e-commerce is succeeding in spite of itself”.

In another indication of the growing maturity of the US market, Blue Nile, the leading online retailer of diamond engagement rings, is becoming one of the first “pure play” US internet stores to cross the Atlantic. The retailer, whose US sales of wedding and engagement rings last year surpassed Tiffany’s, has opened a distribution centre in Ireland, its first outside the US. It launched a full UK website at the weekend.

The lure of international sales for US retailers has been underlined by Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer.

Amazon’s sites in the UK, Japan, Germany, China and France accounted for 46 per cent of the company’s $3bn sales in its first quarter and rose faster than North American sales.

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