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There's the hard way ... // ... and there's the easy chair

It's not that Lisa Seims hates shopping.

She just hates the crowds, the traffic and the hassles that come with shopping during the Christmas season, which began _ officially or unofficially _ on Friday.

So this year, Seims plans to buy at least half her Christmas presents through catalogs. She might do a little shopping via television, too. And she plans to avoid the malls as much as she can.

"It's just a lot easier," said Seims, a Tampa resident and professional employee trainer. "And you can find gifts that are more unique than you can find in the stores."

Armed with catalogs, televisions, computers and CD-ROMS, more and more people this year are expected to do their Christmas shopping like Seims:

At home.

Home shopping isn't about to put stores out of business. But there are signs this might be the biggest year yet for retailers that reach out to consumers in their living rooms, mailboxes and dens.

Consider:

- Catalog companies are predicting Christmas sales will increase nearly 17 percent this year from a year ago.

- With new formats and a push to sell holiday gifts, Home Shopping Network and other television retailers are expecting a strong Christmas.

- New shopping sources like multimedia CD-ROM catalogs are giving consumers even more ways to do their shopping.

- Subscriptions to computer online services are at record highs, as is the number of companies advertising on the Internet. At the same time, online services are pushing holiday shopping like never before.

Said Judy Tashbook, spokeswoman for the nation's biggest online service, America Online: "We've got such a variety of vendors now . . . you could literally order your whole Christmas dinner and all the presents under the tree online now."

Selling convenience

What computer online services, television retailers and other non-traditional merchants are selling, of course, is shopping comfort and convenience.

You can pick out Christmas presents from stores around the world in the middle of the night with online services. You can watch a television shopping channel while sitting around in your underwear, if you want. And you can browse through a mail-order catalog over a bowl of cereal at breakfast.

"It's sort of nice, especially in today's two-income families where nobody has any time, when a wife and husband can sit around and do their holiday shopping from a catalog at 9:30 at night," said Carlo Franzblau, vice president of marketing for the Thompson Group catalog company. Based in Tampa, Thompson Group produces three gift catalogs that sell everything from cigars and linens to violin-shaped telephones.

Manufacturers and retailers see catalogs, television shopping and, now, computer shopping as the next wave of ways to meet their customers.

L'eggs Brands Inc., the hosiery company, used to sell its products mainly in retail stores. Now consumers can order pantyhose through a company catalog or on the Internet.

Similarly, Omaha Steaks International, which has 32 retail stores across the country (including two in Tampa) and a burgeoning catalog business, now reaches customers on the CompuServe and America Online networks. It also has its own home page on the Internet's World Wide Web.

"It's just another way to reach out with the latest marketing tool," said Omaha Steaks spokeswoman Marilyn Pred. "And it's another convenience for our customers . . . who are comfortable with the Internet."

Like new strip malls with too few tenants, online services and other non-traditional shopping sources are, of course, eager to lure new revenues and offer shoppers more variety than they can get at the mega-mall around the corner.

America Online, for example, now lists more than 50 merchants, ranging from ham and steak distributors to Hallmark Cards and the trendy Sharper Image. That's double the number of merchants the service offered a year ago, said spokeswoman Tashbook.

One multimedia CD-ROM catalog produced by a California company combines video, pictures and sound with the catalogs of dozens of merchants, from Speigel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's gift shop.

Mail-order print catalogs, once the marketing media of choice primarily for oddball manufacturers of wacky gifts and the biggest department store chains, are being produced by more mainstream retailers these days, too.

"Many retailers are just now waking up to the idea now that direct-mail catalogs are just one more way they can reach their customers," said Jack Schmid, who has a Kansas City, Kan., catalog consulting business.

And with overnight mail and express shipping, catalogers and other shop-at-home services are also beginning to compete with traditional retailers when it comes to last-minute shopping.

"Historically, catalogers quit mailing well before now," Schmid said. "But now, some are mailing out catalogs all the way up to the first part of December, . . . and (with overnight mail) some are taking orders as late as Christmas Eve."

A long way to go

New-age shopping has a long way to go if it is going to put the strip mall around the corner out of business, however.

Catalogs can offer pictures and text, but they can't offer the service or the touch and feel of merchandise that a department store can. And with the cost of paper at its highest in recent years, many catalogers are cutting back on some mailings and limiting the sizes of their books.

Television shopping, though it has been around for years, hasn't made an appreciable dent in the traditional retailing business, partly because of its reputation for gaudy jewelry and other oddball merchandise.

And though online services have added record numbers of new subscribers, studies show that only 10 to 15 percent of all online users actually do any shopping on the services. Partly that's because many users are afraid to send their credit card numbers out into the vast unknowns of hyperspace and because many don't like the time and trouble it often takes to navigate around the interactive shopping systems.

"I don't see these things as replacing shopping malls for a very, very long time _ if ever," said Lorraine Sileo, an analyst with Simba Information Inc., a Connecticut consulting firm. "It will be an incremental business (source) for many companies . . . but a significant one."

As a professor of information management at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, Rolf T. Wigand has studied the effects and possibilities of online shopping systems and other purveyors of electronic commerce.

He said he thinks they all will have their place in the shopping world of tomorrow. But some types of retailing, he said, probably can never be replaced.

"I don't think you'd want to order your groceries through mail order or the Internet," Wigand said. "And right now, for the average consumer, it's still slim pickings out there. You probably could not avoid going to the shopping mall ever again right now.

"But there are certainly many areas where this has clearly already taken off," he said. "And while some of these things are little ahead of their time, they will continue to grow."

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