In Juneau, Christmas clicked

For local shoppers, not a creature was stirring, except for the mouse

Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2003

Most stores in Juneau do not carry bright orange T-shirts with logos of Atari, the now-extinct video game system. Such T-shirts just don't appeal to most of Juneau's consumers.

They do appeal, though, to enough people to support www.80stees.com, a Web site that sells hundreds of T-shirts with 1980s kitsch logos. They also appeal to Tom McBrien, an analyst programmer at the Juneau Public Library.

McBrien's family found the site and was able to purchase the Atari shirt for him in time for Christmas, which they celebrated in Unalaska.

McBrien, his wife, Julie, and their family purchased many Christmas presents this year on the Internet, contributing to the trend that put Alaska near the top of the list of states for online holiday shoppers in 2002.

"I like to shop but I get tired and overwhelmed in the store," Julie McBrien said. "It's nice to steer my way through online - more convenience and more fun. I have more control over what I'm looking at."

Alaskans spent an average of $45.65 per person on Internet shopping between Nov. 25 and Dec. 25, 2002, according to a survey recently released by BizRate.com. Alaska was second only to New Hampshire in per-person Internet spending during that period, the survey found.

BizRate.com provides consumer information to Internet retailers.

"We sit at the transaction page of more than 2,000 merchants from across the Web surveying shoppers after they have bought, and they tell us how much they spent on their purchase, too," said Helen Malani, director of corporate communications for BizRate.com.

The company found that states in the northern United States, which has colder weather, topped the list for per-person Internet spending. New Hampshire had the most Internet shoppers per person, followed by Alaska, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.

States at the bottom of the list were New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi - states with warmer climates. BizRate.com postulates that colder weather makes people more likely to shop online.

The weather is not the only factor influencing online buying, though.

"They shop online predominantly for the convenience and the value savings online," said Malani.

Alaskans said they especially enjoy the larger selection and better prices available online.

"I always figure if shipping and buying it online is less than local prices, someone's making too much money," said McBrien.

He and his family bought many of their gifts on eBay.com, an online auction site. They shipped some of the gifts directly to Unalaska, to avoid having to travel with presents during the holiday season. They paid mostly with personal checks, which caused a longer wait than if they had paid with a credit card.

Tom McBrien bought an alarm clock with the "Winnie the Pooh" character Eeyore for his infant daughter, and a "Curious George" alarm clock for his sister. They also bought books and DVDs from Amazon.com and computer memory from buy.com.

"We keep the cost low - cheaper stuff," McBrien said. "I think the most I've spent online is $200, tops."

The reason the McBriens limit themselves to low-cost items when they shop online is the risk associated with losing purchases in the mail or buying products that don't meet expectations.

Last week, the family was still waiting to receive a DVD it ordered from Amazon.com on Dec. 9.

Many Juneau residents who send gifts to people outside of Alaska find that shopping on the Internet is a more reliable way to get presents to them.

Virginie Duverger, a student at the University of Alaska Southeast, bought presents for her family on eBay France and had her presents directly shipped to her parents, who live in France.

"It was easier for me to get things online," she said. "I could ship from France to France."

She bought antiques: an iron, saw, knife to open oysters, and a leather bag. She tried to buy a violin for herself, but was outbid.

Though the most popular categories for online buying were computer hardware and electronics, Gary Patton, the general manager of Juneau Electronics, said he didn't notice fewer holiday sales this season because of Internet use.

"Alaska has always had such a significant mail-order catalog and now online purchasing market," he said. "People like to purchase online, and they like to purchase via mail order."

Local stores can be very competitive with the Internet when shipping is figured into Internet prices, Patton said, but stores find it difficult to compete with the Internet's lack of a sales tax. The Internet doesn't hurt local businesses too much, though, he said.

"As far as local, Alaska-owned-type business, our biggest competition in town is Costco, Fred Meyer," Patton said. "That's a bigger component than the Internet is."

Claudia Pierce, owner of the Hudson Shoe Store in downtown Juneau, said the Internet probably has affected her business, but measuring the effect and attributing it definitely to the Internet are difficult. She's had only one experience with a customer who tried on shoes in her store and then bought similar shoes on the Internet.

"I'm sure it's had effects on me, but it's very difficult to gauge," Pierce said. "I know that there are several people that have come in here that would rather buy from me. They can't try the shoe on (on the Internet), or the cost is much higher than they anticipated with shipping, and they'd rather I pay for the shipping."

Alaska's large number of online shoppers affects the sales-tax coffers of many cities and towns in the state, but the amount of lost revenue is difficult to quantify.

"If the business doesn't have a presence here, there's nothing requiring them to report their sales, and there would be no way for me to know," said Joan Roomsburg, the sales-tax administrator for Juneau.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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