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For people who hate the mall, online shopping has been a lifesaver.

It's allowed them to beat the traffic, avoid the crowds and get something they see as a chore done quickly from the convenience of their home or work computer.

But more and more online retailers are realizing that if they're going to continue to grow, they to need to win over a whole different kind of consumer -- the one who thinks shopping at the mall is fun.

"I think that what makes shopping so fun is the people," Charlene Li, a media analyst at Forrester Research, told a gathering of e-commerce executives in the Sonoma Valley Tuesday.

Millions love shopping just for the experience of spending time with friends, trying on clothes and discussing purchases with sales people, Li said.

By contrast, shopping online remains a largely solitary experience.

But more and more retailers are finding ways to reach out to these fun-loving folks and entertain them once they arrive at their virtual stores, Li said.

High-end handbag retailer Marka, for example, has online videos that show the bags being used and worn by salespeople. This helps transport the online shopper into the store in a way that pointing and clicking on a picture simply cannot.

"It's like walking into a store and someone giving you a private product demonstration," Li said of the videos.

Li was one of the keynote speakers at the annual summit for MarketLive, the Petaluma-based e-commerce software maker.

Total online sales are expected to reach $116 billion this year, or 5 percent of all retail sales, according to Jupiter Research. But growth is slowing as the e-commerce sector matures.

Forrester expects sales growth to pull back in 18 of the 24 categories it measures. Online book sales, for example, will rise 11 percent this year, compared with nearly 40 percent last year.

Jupiter Research also projects the growth rate for online sales to slow over the next three years. Online spending, which jumped 25 percent in 2004, will grow just 9 percent annually by the end of the decade.

Part of the problem is how little time shoppers actually spend on Web sites they visit, often when they follow links from search engines.

According to Ken Burke, chairman of MarketLive, one third of Web site visitors leave after viewing just one page. Many leave a page after just four seconds if they don't immediately see what they want.

And when it comes to actually buying anything, very few actually do. Less than 10 percent of customers even grab a shopping cart, let alone check out of a Web site, Burke said.

So e-tailers, as they are known, are working hard to redesign their Web sites to make shopping more fun and engaging to keep shoppers around longer and guide them into and through the checkout line.

"You need to be personal. It's no longer about hiding behind a wall of e-commerce impersonality," Li said.

Li's presentation pointed to a number of Web sites with innovative approaches to making online shopping fun.

Stardoll.com encourages young girls to design a model and then "try on" clothes that appear in different combinations on the model.

Timberland allows shoppers to customize a pair of boots just for them, designing everything from the color to the kind of stitching and to personal monograms.

And instead of just listing the clothes it has for sale, American Eagle Outfitters has a page geared toward college kids that shows its clothes thrown around a messy dorm room.

Savvy online shoppers are coming to expect Web sites that do more than just sell them something, said Sarah Veit, who runs the Web site for Bare Escentuals, a San Francisco skin care company.

"For so long e-commerce sites have been transaction oriented. But now it's more about the experience," Veit said.

One key way shopping sites are personalizing the experience is by offering real customers' reviews right on the Web site.

Studies have shown that one thing online shoppers value above all is the opinion of other shoppers, said Brett Hurt, chief executive officer of Bazaarvoice, a Texas-based software business that manages customer reviews.

"People are increasingly turning to each other instead of advertising and traditional channels to make a decision," Hurt said.

People aren't fooled by phony "testimonials" anymore, Hurt said. More than 70 percent of online shoppers say recommendations from other shoppers were a key factor in their purchasing decisions.

So Hurt urges companies to embrace both the praise and the criticism that shoppers have of their products, and to display it prominently on their sites. If they don't, shoppers are going to go somewhere else, like blogs or Web sites such as Epinions.com, to trade information.

Some companies are hesitant to put negative reviews of their products on their own site, but it actually lends authenticity to the site that causes customers to trust it more, increasing sales, Hurt said.

"A lot of people dismiss blogs, but they've been shown to be very powerful and something people listen to," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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