Stay outta the Maul 

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Web offers stocking stuffers from beyond the crush of the mall

Many people, myself included, have come to dread holiday shopping, if not for the general rabid consumerism, then for the masses clamoring past one another as they move their money from cash machine to cash register. Ah, Christmas, we think, time of roasting chestnuts, mistletoe, eggnog, the spirit of giving -- and hand-to-hand combat in the mall.

But there is an alternative to the madness, and with shifts in technology providing shoppers protection and allowing them access to a multitude of sites providing objects of every heart's desire (plus the power to speed up the whole purchasing process) there is reason to think that shopping online may be the only sane way to satisfy everyone on your personal Santa list.

But first a word to the wise: A year ago, I wrote that online shopping had arrived, pointing out that the technologies that can make transactions secure were expensive, and therefore not broadly implemented. This year, those technologies are better and cheaper, enabling countless vendors to offer you security online this holiday season.

Still, one thing to look for whenever giving your credit card number over the Net is site addresses which begin with "https" -- as opposed to just "http." The "s" denotes that the data being passed is being encrypted, or scrambled, which makes it useless to the would-be data thief. By tweaking your browser preferences, you can even set your desktop up to always let you know when you're connected to a secure server.

You can also stick with web sites for companies that you already trust. If you've never heard of the company from which you're considering making a purchase, make sure you find a phone number and address for them on their website; write them down, along with the site's address. You may also want to swing by the Better Business Bureau's new website, at www.bbb.org to see if the company in question has been implicated in any shady deals.

Another helpful site at which you may want to spend some time is www.bizrate.com. BizRate independently reviews online commercial sites. The company provides searchable directories and reviews of hundreds of stores, rating each for search capabilities, security, customer information privacy, phone support, and even gift wrapping.

With all these tools at your disposal, you should be ready to point, click, and shop.

If you just want to send a quick electronic sentiment, then www.netcards.com may do the trick. Choose from countless electronic card themes and fine art images, pick your background and text colors, enter your personalized message, and zap the e-card to your friend or loved-one.

Shopping for clothes on the web may seem sketchy for some. After all, you can't virtually try on a shirt. However, if you stick with well established companies such as Eddie Bauer, The Gap, and J. Crew, excellent return policies will protect you from ill-fitting garb.

Not sure which retailer you want to deal with? Cruise over to www.apparel.net and search their directory of clothes and accessories sites.

One of my favorite gifts to both give or receive (Mom, are you reading this?) is food. At www.hickoryfarms.com, you're sure to find the fruit baskets, chocolates and cheeses that'll satisfy all your hungry friends. A shopping cart system at this site lets you track multiple purchases as you browse.

Amazon.com, with more than 2.5 million titles available, is still Earth's biggest bookstore. The attractive interface allows you to search for books by subject, title or author. I found well over 100 titles for my search on "Montana history." You can also send books on tape or gift certificates (paper or electronic), and gift wrapping, once again, is available.

Music Boulevard is a great site for finding gifts of music. The powerful search tools allow you to find exactly what you're looking for -- my search for "Grateful Dead" turned up a whopping 61 releases -- and they even suggest other bands that you may like based on the content of your search.

One of the hottest gifts for kids this Christmas will be video games for fancy new game systems. Some games have achieved such massive popularity that they've become difficult to find. But the Vid Game Warehouse has been created to act as an online source for Nintendo 64, Saturn and Playstation games.

Online shopping for Christmas gifts is safe if you follow the few guidelines I've presented. By shopping on the web, you also spur the development of even better tools that we'll all be using in the future. Perhaps more importantly, you save time, gas and the potential headache caused by the melee in the mall.

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