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RETAIL WEB HITS DECLINING

The abrupt change doesn't bode well for traditional stores.

The growth of online retail sales have slowed down, but the number of hits keyed into the 500 busiest e-commerce sites is declining, says Hitwise, a unit of Experian that tracks Internet traffic.

Retail Web site hits, which started to slump into negative territory eight weeks ago, were down 3 percent the week ending Saturday, compared with the same week a year ago. Through the summer, they had been running 14 percent ahead.

The dramatic shift is one more ominous cloud hovering over tepid consumer spending that extends beyond the world of e-commerce.

"Everyone is aware of the role the Internet plays to influence offline sales through consumer research, so this slowdown may indicate a further ripple effect" of depressed sales in traditional stores, said Heather Dougherty, Hitwise research director.

Sites selling health and beauty products, groceries and alcohol, and home and garden goods were up. But music plummeted 21 percent, computers dropped 18 percent and ticketing was off 12 percent, while toys, hobbies, video and games declined 10 percent.

The 500 biggest retail sites accounted for 2.9 percent of all U.S. net traffic last week, down from 3 percent a year ago.

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