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Americans had a brisk holiday of online action

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Despite recent terrorism, Americans didn't avoid malls. And the anthrax that apparently was sent by U.S. mail didn't seem to discourage them from sending holiday greeting cards.

But though most people said they didn't change their shopping habits, a lot more of them folded online activity — from shopping to downloading recipes and making appointments with friends by e-mail — into their holiday preparations.

In 2001, 29 million Americans bought holiday gifts online, spending on average $392 each, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which surveyed 4,052 American adults. Of those, 2,364 were Internet users. The survey had an error margin of plus or minus 2 percent.

That was a sharp increase from 2000, when 20 million Americans did some holiday shopping online, spending an average of $330 each.

Nearly 60 percent of those who bought gifts online this holiday season were women — the first time they've outnumbered men shopping online. The women also enjoyed online shopping more, they said.

According to Lee Rainie, director of the project, who compiled the data, fewer people complained about or worried about potential online shopping hassles, while more said they saved time and money.

Shopping, though, paled compared to other online holiday activities.

"More Internet users made holiday plans via e-mail, downloaded craft ideas and recipes from the Web and searched for spiritual information online than did anything connected to gift buying," the study noted.

Nearly two-thirds of online Americans used the Internet for social or spiritual activities, while slightly fewer than half used the Web to browse for gift ideas, compare prices or actually shop.

The telephone and U.S. mail are still preferred for exchanging holiday greetings, used by 95 percent of those with Internet access.

The study found that about 58 percent of Internet users have ever shopped online. At this time last year, the number was 51 percent. That's about 11 million more shoppers (not just during the holidays) than in the previous year.

Demographically, people with larger incomes are more likely to buy gifts online, the survey found. Nearly 40 percent of those with incomes over $75,000 bought gifts online, compared to 15 percent of households with income below $30,000. The study also reported the "sharpest increases" in online shopping came from minority and young users of the Internet.

Even those who shopped online, though, hit the malls. Of those who bought online, 81 percent also shopped in person and nearly half said they only bought a few of their gifts online.

The report noted that 84 percent of online shoppers believed they saved time by doing that and 60 percent said they saved money.

But the number of shoppers who said they were very satisfied with the gifts they bought online (49 percent) dropped. The year before, 60 percent were satisfied.

Of the 74 percent of Internet users who did not buy gifts online this year, the primary reason given was fear of giving out credit card information online.

On the giving side, 44 percent of Americans told the Pew survey they had made donations to relief efforts during the holidays, three-fourths of them in response to terrorism.

And few Americans — only 8 percent — said they canceled holiday trips they normally would have taken.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project is a nonprofit initiative funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The project explores the impact of the Internet on children, families, communities, health care, schools, the work place and civic and political life. More information is available online at www.pewinternet.org.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com