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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Real Retailers Imitate Cyber Sales Methods

NEW YORK -- As Internet retailers crow that the country is about to have another e-Christmas, brick-and-mortar stores are striking back.

"Wish list programs," first promoted by online sites as the perfect Internet holiday convenience, are now being usurped by traditional shopping destinations.

A "me generation" update of the bridal registry, the wish list allows any candidly acquisitive consumer to record gift choices by simply checking size, color and model number. Dan Swaab, a 29-year-old architect, recently put a black pullover from clothing outlet Butch Blum and customized picture frame at a store called Fireworks, among other items, on his list. But instead of signing up on a computer site, he did so at the University Village shopping mall outside Seattle, which has been providing forms since the beginning of November for visitors to fill in as they visit their favorite boutiques.

The completed lists can be dropped off at locations throughout the complex and are entered into a database (at no cost to shoppers) that is available both on the mall's Internet site and at kiosks. Swaab, who said he is familiar with the Internet but "not a full bore browser," sees no advantage to doing a wish list solely on the Internet. "Returns can be such a hassle," he explained. "This way I've tried everything on."

Even if this holiday season's online sales reach the high-end predictions of $12 billion, traditional retailers will ring up about 14 times that amount. But mall merchants need to do more than hold their own during the season that accounts for much of their profits for the year. Retailers know they are facing a pervasive stereotype that real-world holiday shopping is a parking and service nightmare. So to make sure Americans do not stay home in front of their computers to buy gifts, stores are beefing up basics like customer service and displaying innovative incentives that range from cash to psychics who select something for hard-to-please in-laws.

The holiday season always brings out a creative streak in merchants, and that has been accented this year by fear. Since the economy remains strong, the official outlook for Christmas 1999 is very bullish - the National Retail Federation predicts total sales will be about $184 billion, up 6 percent from last year. But the growth in retail sales slowed in October and November, suggesting that consumers might not be as willing to dip into their pockets to satisfy their appetite for DVD players and pashmina shawls. For merchants who rely on Christmas foot traffic for a large chunk of the year's sales, the potential softening of consumer demand has combined with heightened Internet hype to put them on edge.

Although most merchants and malls will not admit having such Internet fears for the record, retail analysts say the early rush to put decorations in the windows and the ever-earlier markdowns show that retailers on the ground are feeling pressured. "Mostly traditional retailers are acting very defensively about Christmas," said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting firm. "They feel that all the talk on the Internet is going to drain them."

Among the most interesting retailers to watch this season are those whose livelihoods are most directly challenged by the web. The web site of Borders Group is a footnote in the battle between and to dominate cyberspace book sales, but the chain is rolling out holiday ideas to remain competitive for in-store sales.

This season, Borders' stores will hold art-and-crafts workshops where children can make bookmarks out of construction paper and crayons. The chain will also hand out booklets of appropriate quotations for book inscriptions for the wit impaired. For example, shoppers giving books on personal finance are advised to copy a quote from Mark Twain, "The lack of money is the root of all evil," onto the front flap. "We wanted to be extra resource for our customers this year," said Ann Binkley, a Borders spokeswoman.

Employees of the retail chain Electronics Boutique will be roving the aisles with hand-held cash registers in 30 of its Northeastern stores this holiday season. Seth Levy, the company's chief information officer, calls the new system "a line buster." He adds that the devices, which are equipped to take credit card sales, create a intimate transaction. "If I can talk to you face-to-face in front of the register, we feel it is a closer relationship than if there is a 4-foot block of wood between us," Levy said.