The double-digit growth will continue through 2013 as shoppers make greater use of the channel and more stores come online.
Eventually, that growth will slow into the single digits, as online retail is unlikely to get any bigger than 10 to 15 percent of total U.S. sales, said Patti Freeman Evans, an analyst with JupiterResearch in New York.
The number-one reason women shop for apparel and accessories online is convenience, according to analysts and retailers. For example, women shop late at night when the stores are closed and the children are sleeping. Another appeal of the online channel is that it's searchable, which makes it the first place women turn to when they're looking for something specific, such as a dress they tried on that wasn't available in their size, something they saw in a magazine or the Christian Dior shoes Sarah Jessica Parker wore in "Sex and the City."
"Clearly, convenience" is the reason women shop online, said president and chief executive of Neiman Marcus Direct Brendan Hoffman. It gives them "the opportunity to do it where they want, when they want." Roughly half of Neiman's business comes from customers who live outside the store areas. Those who do live nearby purchase when they are at work or can't get to a store, he said. "We're seeing a lot more [sales activity] at night, after they've put the kids to bed."
The customer is responding to must-have product, and the retailer sees a definite spike of interest — including calls — when an item appears in a magazine or movie.
The need for speed doesn't apply only to those with big budgets. At ShoeMall.com, for example, an online-only store that opened in 1999 and features 18,000 styles from brands such as Easy Spirit and Kenneth Cole, the typical customer is "an Internet-savvy woman shopper who doesn't have a lot of time; she knows what she wants," said Jodi Bresina, ShoeMall Internet director.
Last year, online retail in the U.S. grew 21 percent to $175 billion, or 6 percent of U.S. retail sales, according to Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. (The figures exclude travel.) This year, online retail is expected to grow to $204 billion and 7 percent of all U.S. retail sales. Mostly the growth will come from taking sales away from other channels. By 2012, e-commerce sales will exceed $300 billion, the firm predicts.