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Surfin' with Santa

I managed to avoid the malls on Black Friday, the affectionate term used to describe the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year.

I did, however, make the mistake of joining the throngs of people who ventured out to christen the new Great Lakes Crossing Mall. And if that wasn't a peek into the future of mall culture, I don't know what is.

I consider myself an ace shopper. I swoop into the best parking space, know exactly what I'm looking for, find it marked half-off on the clearance rack, track down the most readily available cashier, pay cash and escape with only a few minor irritable offenses.

But holiday shopping isn't fun. It's a nightmare. Long, hot lines, expensive markups and uncomfortable crowds are just a few of the reasons why more shoppers are taking their credit on the wired road.

High-tech stocks are on the upswing, even though the rest of the market is dipping -- partly because of the increase in online spending.

Could this mark the end of the era of the super mall?

Some of the biggest winners include computer hardware and software peddlers, retailers with strong catalog markets (such as Eddie Bauer and Land's End), and book and music sellers. Others now include some of the traditional "anchor" stores, such as Nordstrom's, which are finding that they don't want to be last on the bandwagon. And most of the retail sites I've visited offer products at deeply discounted prices -- at least compared with their physical store counterparts.

Studies from various sources estimate that online spending has doubled since this time last year. A report produced by Forrester Research in Cambridge, MA, predicts that by 2003, 6 percent of all retail sales will be a result of online spending.

The reason it works? Convenience. More product information is available, it's open 24 hours, 7 days a week, and shipping usually takes only a couple of days.

Of course, someone had to come up with National Online Shopping Week 1998, which continues through Dec. 4.

I must admit I have ventured only as far as Amazon.com to make actual purchases. Then again, my gift list is short and recipients have come to expect a book, or at least a gift certificate for books.

For buying newbies here are a few tips and cautions:

* Make sure you're conducting your transaction in a secure environment. To do this you need a secure browser and a shopping site that is secure as well. AOL, Internet Explorer and Netscape's latest version are all secure browsers.

When you enter the check-out area of a site, a message will flash on your screen indicating that you are entering a secure area. This means the site protects your data and that your credit card information is being encrypted as it is transmitted.

* Check privacy policies. Sometimes you're asked to submit information about your likes and dislikes, in addition to name and address. Merchants may use this information to bombard you with marketing literature or sell it to other companies. You can keep yourself safe if you check the site's privacy policy, which tells you precisely what they do with the data and personal information you send.

* Use common sense. Don't buy big-ticket items your first time out; shop in stores that have been around for a while or that you are already familiar with; check return policies and warranties; inquire about sales tax; and make sure you know the shipping costs.

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