US begins tracking e-commerce

Marking its entry into a new field, the US Department of Commerce yesterday announced its first estimate of retail sales on the Internet.

In a press conference, commerce secretary William M. Daley said e-commerce retail sales for the fourth quarter of last year totaled $5.3 billion, just over half a percent of total retail sales - $821 billion - during the busy Christmas shopping season.

"Obviously, as a percent of all retail sales, it was small - 0.64% - but e-tailing has come of age," Daley said in the press conference.

Daley said the figure represents a benchmark from which future growth of electronic retail sales can be measured. Estimating electronic retail sales is a new way to measure the economy, he said.

Beginning next year, the Commerce Department will also release quarterly figures estimating the amount of business-to-business e-commerce, Daley said.

The government figure is lower than some other estimates of e-commerce sales. For example, a report released yesterday by the National Retail Federation, Forrester Research Inc. and Greenfield Online Inc. put online spending at $2.8 billion for January alone. However, that figure includes sectors such as airline tickets, car rentals and hotel spending totaling nearly $600 million. Those sectors weren't included in the Commerce Department's calculations.

The government data was based on a survey of 8,800 businesses. Of the 8,000 that responded, 15% said they were doing at least some business online. The respondents included dot-coms as well as brick-and-mortar businesses that had some sales over the Internet.

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