Donna Goodrich, a Mesa freelance writer and editor, likes to buy Christmas presents that aren’t always easy to find in stores around the East Valley. Things like Detroit Red Wings T-shirts and Boston Red Sox caps.
And her daughter collects anything with a dolphin design on it — bedding, clothing, clocks, lamps — that aren’t widely stocked in a city that’s more than a hundred miles from the nearest ocean.
Still, she has no trouble keeping her children and grandchildren happy because she can usually find and order whatever she’s looking for on the Internet.
"It’s really handy," she said. "I can do my shopping in the middle of the night if I want to."
G oodrich sticks to Web sites she’s familiar with, and so far she hasn’t had a terrible experience. Usually she can get re funds if something doesn’t fit or it’s not as pretty as the picture. Sometimes the online stores will provide free shipping in both directions.
She doesn’t believe it’s necessarily cheaper to shop online. "For me, it’s more the convenience and time savings. It’s convenient not to have to run all over town looking for things."
Online shopping sites are hoping that a lot of consumers will follow her example and avoid the Christmas crowds by shopping on the Internet this year. Analysts anticipate holiday online sales will grow anywhere from 20 percent to 42 percent over last year while traditional retailers may see gains of only 3 percent to 5 percent. Amazon.com expects its fourth quarter sales will rise between 23 percent and 34 percent from the same period last year.
Helping to fuel the online explosion are comparisonshopping Web sites, known as "bots," which compare prices and find the best deals for consumers.
The shopping services have been around for awhile, but they have become increasingly useful in recent months. Most of the top shopping sites have expanded the number of merchants that they track and introduced new features designed to make it easier for consumers to quickly call up an array of product research.
Product comparison sites have become such a major draw that they attracted 33 million unique visitors in October, according to comScore Networks, a research firm. Total traffic to the sites rose 9 percent from the same time last year, making them one of the Web’s fastest-growing categories.
The free shopping assistance is available through search services offered by Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and Dogpile, as well as specialty online commerce sites such as NexTag, BizRate, PriceGrabber, MySimon and Shopping.com.
Shopping.com did best among the specialty sites in October, with nearly 15.5 million unique visitors.
It’s all part of ‘‘an unmistakable shift in the way consumers open their wallets online,’’ said Chuck Davis, chief executive of BizRate.
A year ago, BizRate’s site monitored 5 million products carried by 3,300 stores. It now spans more than 25 million products from 39,000 merchants, which generally pay sites like BizRate for referrals.
The sites typically include side-by-side comparisons of similar products made by different manufacturers, as well as prices offered by different merchants and reviews written by consumers.
Although the sites profit from the referral fees they collect from listed merchants — a factor that sometimes sways search results — the site operators insist their top priority is satisfying shoppers so retailers stay happy, too.
‘‘Merchants are really hungry for the customers that we send them because these are people who are usually really ready to shop,’’ said Purnendu Ojha, NexTag’s chief executive.
Some consumers still resist buying online because of fears their confidential information will leak out, said Todd Bankofier, president of the Arizona Technology Council. Still, the level of protection is the best it’s ever been, he said.
The American Bar Association also offers tips for shopping online at www.safeshopping.org.