NEW YORK -- Two truths have defined the retailing business over the past decade: There are too many stores and shoppers are loyal only to a few.
So it should come as no surprise that the online shopping business is under siege from Wall Street and industry watchers who are issuing doomsday predictions that the majority of cybershops will fold in the next year.
E-retailers are now facing what their brick-and-mortar counterparts learned long ago -- everyone can't survive.
''Just like a mall couldn't make it if it was packed with stores, many looking exactly the same, the Internet retailers are up against the same problems,'' said Kurt Barnard, president of the Upper Montclair, N.J., consulting firm Barnard's Retail Trend Report. ''You need to the best or be different to make it.''
Space is infinite on the Internet, and that allows giant chains and tiny entrepreneurs to open shop alongside one another on what appears to be a level playing field.
Nonetheless, the e-marketplace has become too crowded, much like the suburban roads overrun with malls and discount stores. Shoppers find it hard to navigate through the 30,000 merchants online today, many offering the same products from sites that look almost identical.
As a result, consumers shop online just as they do in the traditional world. They frequent a handful of sites that suit their basic needs -- basing their choices mostly on convenience or price -- and venture to others only for specialized goods or services.
A study released this past week by Columbia Business School and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found the majority of consumers do very little comparison shopping online and mostly stick to the sites they know.
Shoppers tend to stay with their favorite sites because it's too much trouble to find their way around new ones, the study said.
''When I go to a grocery store, I learn that store, and even if something is cheaper across the street, I won't go there,'' said Eric Johnson, a professor at Columbia and one of the study's authors. ''That's exactly what we are seeing on the Internet.''
Consumers seem attracted to the largest and best-known sites, many of which use hefty marketing budgets to woo shoppers. That includes Internet-only stores such as Amazon.com and cybershops linked to traditional chains, such as Sears.com.
Those sites offering niche products -- whether it be maternity clothes, furniture or supplies for wallpapering -- are also faring well by offering something unique that consumers may not be able to find near their homes.
But the thousands of sites that fall in between -- which some say could total as much as 25,000 in all -- may be doomed if they don't quickly come up with a way to stand out from the pack.
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