Consumers increasingly are using the Internet to shop for goods and services, according to a survey by Nielsen Media Research commissioned by a consortium devoted to promoting electronic commerce.

During the last 18 months, the number of adult Americans and Canadians regularly using the Internet's World Wide Web nearly tripled, to 37.4 million, and the number using it to gather product information for purchase decisions nearly quadrupled, to 27.3 million.

The share of adult Web users who have made on-line purchases (rather than just researching products) has remained constant at only about 15%. But with the absolute number of Web users increasing, the number of on-line purchasers has grown to 5.6 million from two million.

Executives conducting the survey said this is good news for bankers eager for electronic commerce to take off.

"It is encouraging that such a large number of people are purchasing, and using the Web as a valuable tool before purchasing," said Paul B. Lindstrom, vice president at Nielsen Media Research in New York.

"There are all these people banking their future on the Internet's becoming an instrument of electronic commerce," said Stacey Bressler, vice president at CommerceNet, the Palo Alto, Calif., consortium that commissioned the survey. "I now have the data that will justify the faith that we have had in the medium for the past few years."

The survey, conducted in December and January, contacted 6,600 consumers older than 16.

Unlike the conclusions drawn from a similar Nielsen-CommerceNet research effort 18 months earlier, this survey's findings jibe with conventional wisdom about the state of Internet use.

"The results of the survey seem plausible and in line with other research," said Evan M. Cohen, a senior research analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York, which also has investigated the size of the market for electronic commerce and on-line banking.

The first Nielsen-CommerceNet effort was criticized for the way it defined Internet access and use. While retaining comparability with the August 1995 study, this winter's survey narrowed the definition of Internet use.

As with an intervening call-back survey released in August 1996, organizers were careful to consider respondents' answers in light of known demographic variables like education.

The most recent survey projected that 50 million Americans and Canadians older than 16 (about 23% of the population in that age group) had used the Internet in the previous month.

About 37.4 million, or 17% of the target population, had used the Web- the Internet's dominant multimedia avenue-within the month.

In August 1995, Nielsen and CommerceNet reported that 19 million Americans and Canadians (8.5%) had used the Internet and 13 million (6%) had used the Web.

More significantly, the recent survey found even greater increases in the percentages of Web users who research products and services on-line.

Among Web users, 73% spend some portion of their time searching for information about a specific product or service and 39% did searches when making a buying decision. These figures compare with 55% and 19%, respectively, in 1995.

Coupled with dramatic increases in Web use, the number using the Web to do some form of shopping has ballooned from seven million to 27 million.

Though CommerceNet executives were buoyed by the news, they acknowledged that a lot of work lies ahead.

"While the numbers confirm that the Internet has become an established shopping vehicle," said Randall Whiting, newly named president and chief executive of CommerceNet, "clearly, changes in technology, product offerings, and perceptions are needed before most people will want to buy on-line."

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