March 21, 2001, 12:00 AM

More Americans buying on the web, but cautious about discretionary spending

The American Express Retail Index says that while consumers will be more cautious with discretionary spending, more will be doing their spending online. The fastest growing category online: gifts.

Kurt Peters

Executive Editor

According to the American Express Retail Index, more consumers are turning to the Internet to save time or money when purchasing discretionary items. Overall, 75% of respondents said they have Internet access either at home or work (up from 68% in 2000), and 45% of these consumers also reported making an online purchase in the last six months.

To save time or money, 42% said they purchase books online (up from 36% in 2000), 42% go online to buy music, compact discs or videos (compared with 23% in 2000) and 39% say they purchase gifts online (compared with 1% in 2000).

Most consumers appear cautious about their discretionary spending this year. Overall, 53% of those surveyed plan to spend the same on discretionary items this year; 27% plan to spend more while 20% plan to spend less. The average American household expects fixed household expenses will rise by about 13% this year.

The American Express Retail Index, conducted by telephone in January and February, is based on a random, national survey among 805 adults with major credit cards. The survey looked at how consumers spend and manage their money.

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