This month, I decided to take a detour into cyberspace where — despite the dot.com bomb — online shopping is still going strong. I found out just how strong during a recent gift-buying spree that also showed some lingering problems.

Developers of retail real estate over-reacted to the threat from online a few years back. But they should not be complacent. Internet sales could reach $100 billion this year.

So what's sending shoppers to the Web? Time and (in most states) sales taxes (a fact shopping center owners are lobbying to change). The disadvantages: shipping costs (that can exceed the avoided taxes) and not being able to see and feel the gift you buy.

Increasingly, clicks and bricks are becoming integrated. You can browse online and ship it out directly, or go to the store and buy it and maybe throw in a little something extra like I did at Williams-Sonoma. (I added a set of ice cream bowls ($12) along with their requested Teflon scoop ($22). I took the wrapped gift with me so there was no delivery charge. And if my friends don't like the bowls, they can simply take them to their nearest Williams-Sonoma and return them.

David, a 29 year-old journalist, and Dana, a 30-year-old public relations specialist, got me started on this quest. I wanted to buy them a little something for their engagement and asked where they were registered. I browsed at their online wish list, but wasn't ready to buy yet.

Meanwhile, I had to buy an engagement present for a cousin in Chicago and a baby gift for my friend Maria. Maria was very specific, directing friends to two online-only retailers — babystyle.com and baby-center.com. I chose baby jeans ($14.95) and a jacket ($20). No tax and free-shipping. A bargain.

This sort of thing probably gives mall owners the willies. I didn't really have a choice of where to shop if I wanted to get her what she asked for. I suppose I could have looked online and then tried to get the merchandise in a mall, but that seemed like a lot of work.

At Crate & Barrel, I found my cousin's registry in two clicks. I scrolled through a lot of red “fulfilled” labels before I found something they still needed in my price range — a set of wine glasses ($28), to be exact. You can view the product (listed in categories — flatware, stemware, etc.) and determine how many of any given item they still need. After delivery charges of $6.50, gift-wrapping cost of $3.50 and $2.13 in tax (13 states charge tax for remote purchases), the total was a surprise ($40.13 for a $28 purchase). But my time was worth it.

Even when gift-givers go to the store, it doesn't always mean business. David and Dana told me about a relative who went to Williams-Sonoma for a $260 Cuisinart on their list. It was out of stock, but, “don't worry,” said the salesclerk. “You can get it online at cutlery.com for $199.95.” Which is what the relative did. And Dana immediately made use of the edit function on her wish list, jettisoning the retail-priced model.

Vitals

Location: Cyberspace
Size: Infinity
Sales: $75 billion in 2002, up 50% from 2001 (Source: Shop.org and Forrester Research
Stores: Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, Bloomingdales, babyspace.com, babycenter.com, etc., etc., etc.