February 28, 2002, 12:00 AM

How much did e-shopping grow this holiday season? Take your pick

Competing researchers report differing levels of online buying in Q4. But one thing remains constant: It was up.

Sharpen your pencils. It’s time for the Q4 shopping quiz.

1. Online shopping during the fourth quarter of 2001 grew:

a.) 20% b.) 14%

c.) 15% d.) 35%

2. The billions of dollars that consumers spent online equaled:

a.) 10.8 b.) 11.1

c.) 13.8 (Nov./Dec.) d.) 12.43

The correct answers: All of the above.

Online shopping in 2001 finished strong, say all the reporting organizations that track that sort of thing. But the question is: How strong?

The answer is more than academic. As retailers allocate scarce resources, they need to know the relative importance of each area where they could invest. “We always look at the size of the market and growth rates for planning purposes; it’s a key first step,” says Jim Okamura, Chicago-based partner with retail consultants J.C. Williams. “Knowing the size of the market and potential for growth allows us to devote resources to the proper channel accordingly.”

Each reporting agency has its own methodologies and the components that it measures are different. Some follow users around the Internet and keep track of what they do; others survey consumers about their previous month’s online buying habits. Some include travel spending in their numbers, others report travel and retail spending separately.

ComScore Networks Inc., whose numbers are represented by option A above, tracks the Internet behavior of a cross-section of 1.5 million consumers who allow comScore to follow them around on the Internet. ComScore recently noted that its numbers over the past year have been only a few percentage points different from the figures that the Commerce Department reports. The Commerce Department arrives at its numbers by surveying 11,000 retailers. (The Commerce Department’s Q4 numbers came out too late for deadline, but you may view them at internetretailer.com.) ComScore routinely reports its numbers both with and without travel spending. Its figures do not include auctions.

Forrester Research Inc., whose numbers are represented by option B, bases its figures on a survey of 5,000 online consumers conducted with researchers Greenfield Online during the first nine business days of the month. They ask consumers to recall their online buying for the previous month. As part of the spending survey, Forrester measures online travel spending and reports its numbers with travel spending included. Travel can be broken out, but only if you ask, or know where to look. The above numbers exclude travel. With travel, the spending would have reached $15 billion in the fourth quarter. Further complicating, matters, Forrester recently revised its numbers from 2000 downward, stating that it had overestimated the number of shoppers online at the end of 2000. That makes quarter-to-quarter comparisons difficult so the growth number above is December-to-December growth.

The eSpending Report by Goldman Sachs, Harris Interactive and Nielsen/NetRatings, which is represented by option C, is based on a weekly national survey of 500 online shoppers randomly chosen from Harris Interactive`s multimillion-member panel of Internet users.

BizRate.com, whose numbers are represented by option D, has contracts with 2,000 online merchants to monitor activity at their sites. BizRate performs intercept surveys on customer satisfaction and so has a view of what is happening at each site. “Each time an order takes place, we see it,” says Juliane Hearst, vice president of research for BizRate. BizRate then takes publicly available information about sales at sites it doesn’t monitor to derive its total numbers. BizRate, too, says it benchmarks itself against the Commerce Department numbers. For 2000, BizRate reported total online sales of $28.91 billion vs. $26.47 billion that the Commerce Department reported. BizRate does not count travel or auctions in its numbers.

Adding to the confusion were the reports that America Online, Yahoo and MSN released just after the holidays touting how much their customers had spent at retail sites. Those figures raise the whole issue of whose customer it is when someone with an AOL browser clicks on the Yahoo shopping icon for Lands End. Yahoo, for instance, reported that its customers spent $10.3 billion online in the fourth quarter. But if the other researchers are to be believed, then Yahoo customers did all the shopping in Q4. Analysts say AOL, Yahoo and MSN figures may overlap each other. And they, of course, don’t include transactions that AOL, Yahoo or MSN do not see.

So which researcher should you believe? Okamura says he reviews all the reports, then compares them against government data. “We take a critical view of the various forecasts,” he says.

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