Shopping online has reached record levels and has had a marked effect on Ulster's purchasing trends, especially at Christmas. But is it all it's cracked up to be? Claire McNeilly and Dominic O'Neill find out
Online shopping hit new heights in Britain this month when festive buyers spent a record £180m in just one day.
But just how far will the Internet shopping boom go? And is buying on-line really good for the consumer?
Moreover, does giving money to a faceless supplier pose its own dangers?
A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer was in no doubt that, for many customers, online shopping is the way forward.
"I can say that it is becoming more and more popular. The website is usually within our top five performing stores, although it can vary. We think there is a mixed customer profile - some people will go online and buy things because it's handier, others might check something out online and then buy it in the shop," she said.
Marks and Spencer, which promises to deliver orders within five days, also believe that online suits busy people's lifestyles.
"You can do your shopping at 3am if you want and you also get access to more products than you would if you live closest to one of the smaller shops, " she said.
James Roper, CEO of Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), the group, which carried out the research into Internet shopping, agreed the Internet is convenient for both the customer - and supplier.
"It's the most exciting thing that's ever happend for consumers," he said. "It's finally making the market transparent. God help any on-line merchant that rips his customer off!"
Mr Roper added that shopping over the Internet is much safer than many people think.
"You can't lose anything if you pay by creit card," he said.
Several major stores have reported a downturn in traditional retail sales this Christmas, which may well be a legacy of the online boom.
And the Royal Mail has also noticed a substantial growth in the number of parcels it handles, again directly linked to internet shopping.
Jason Griffiths, head of marketing at Topman, said that he had noticed a growth in online sales over the last 12 months.
"There has been far more focus within the business on this retail channel for the brand both in the UK and plans overseas," he said.
"Internet shopping is definitely getting more popular. Men had always been quite reserved when it came to buying fashion online, but over the last 12 months we have noticed a steep growth curve in e-commerce sales."
He added: "The has also been a surge in the use of our site in a more information gathering role to then shop offline within the retail stores themselves."
For Topman stores across the UK, the percentage of revenue generated online is, perhaps, lower than expected.
"In an average week topman.com can represent 2% of the overall brand sales," said Mr Griffiths.
"It is now ranked consistently within the top five stores with a challenge to make it our second largest store within the next six months."
He also said that online shopping is the way forward.
"It provides the customer with opportunity to shop 24/7, saving time, and it is also an useful tool for potential shoppers to gather information about products before then visiting a high street store."
But Caroline Walton of Northern Ireland's Trading Standard's Service said that people need to take more care when buying on-line.
"DVDs, branded clothing, handbags and jewellery sold on-line have all been subject to investigations here in Northern Ireland," she said.
"People need to check more carefully the item's description, the companies feedback, their returns policy, and whether the payment is properly protected.
"As the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, it usually is!"
Meanwhile, Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium, a body that represents the major retailers, put paid to the myth that Internet shopping was killing High Street shops.
"As in the rest of the UK, the High Street is not in competition with the Internet in Northern Ireland," he said. People tend to use both - they shop on-line and on the High Street to see what they like best.
"The on-line retailers in Northern Ireland are also the biggest traditional retailers."