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Study: UK Two Years Behind US on Web

LONDON — Mintel International, a British consumer and market research company, predicted last month that online sales in the United Kingdom would rise from 1.2 billion pounds ($1.8 billion USD) to 5.4 billion pounds ($8.1 billion USD) in four years.

The firm released a study comparing the UK and the United States Internet markets for use by Mintel customers who range from retailers and ad agencies to libraries, company directors and marketing students.

Overall, the study found that the UK was still two years behind the US in developing the Internet economy but that the “catch-up” pattern in Britain was similar to developments in the US.

Thus men were the early adopters of Internet shoppers in the UK as they were in the US two years ago. Women are catching up fast in the UK, as they did in the US, and now account for 31 percent of online shopping.

Since women make more shopping decisions offline than men do in both countries, that pattern is likely to replicate on the Web, especially as class distinctions decline.

Early surfers in both countries tended to be well-educated men in the 25 to 45 age range with high disposable incomes. Today, online shoppers include older people, parents with children at home, and men and women with less education and less income.

What may take longer to rectify, the study noted, was the absence of US-style unmetered Internet access — i.e., where users do not pay per-minute phone charges, which, given higher phone costs, has been a drag on UK Web use.

The Blair government, however, has pledged to change that as part of its efforts to make the UK a leading e-commerce venue over the next few years. Already several Internet service providers, including AltaVista and NTL, are offering unmetered access.

Online grocery sales seem to be stronger and better developed in the UK than in the US, the study said, citing the leadership role played by the two giant supermarket rivals, Tesco and Sainsbury.

Both have different approaches to online food shopping and both are encountering fulfillment problems. Indeed, the study noted that slowness of delivery is turning many Britons away from the Web.

“A lot of retailers want to get on Web pages but fail to address the fulfillment side,” said Neil Mason, who shepherded the study for Mintel. “We find that people who have had a bad initial Web experience are unlikely to go back.

“The customer service side is very important and major retailers have not addressed the issue as clearly as they should. People with delivery problems are not given much help.”

Britons still exhibit a “certain amount of resistance” to shopping online, Mason said, with many worried about security problems. And while credit card penetration in the UK is higher than in most other countries, it is not as universal as it is in the US.

Mason also said that Mintel had gathered comparative information from official and private sources in both the US and the UK in order to give subscribers a more balanced view of Internet growth.

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