Citigroup rates No. 1 in US web shopping Inc. was the top-rated web shopping site this holiday, according to a Citigroup study released on Friday that considered factors such as simplicity of checkout, price and product assortment.

The Citigroup study rated 44 retail websites, from Internet giant eBay Inc. to teen retailer Hot Topic Inc., judging sites on how easy they were to use, visual appeal, ease of checkout, merchandise assortment, delivery, return options and price.

Other top rated sites included those from American Eagle Outfitters , Gap Inc.'s Banana Republic and Talbots Inc. Citigroup noted that although "eBay's user interface may not have been best-in-class, its vast product selection clearly stands out."

On Thursday, tracking firm comScore Networks said that online retail spending during the 2005 holiday season rose 25 percent over last season to $19.6 billion (11 billion pounds).

Citigroup singled out Talbots in overall customer satisfaction, citing their free gift wrapping and free upgraded shipping for last minute purchases.

Ranked at the bottom of Citigroup's study were the online sites of Costco Wholesale Corp, CompUSA, Hot Topic and Kohl's Corp.

Comparison shopping sites, Citigroup said, were competitive in pricing but customer satisfaction is dependent not on the shopping site itself, but on the companies who fulfil the orders whose service can vary widely and "the overall buying process can be frustrating."

Regardless, Citigroup noted that overall visits to online shopping sites are gaining traction with consumers and growing faster year-over-year than visits to the online outlets of "multi-channel" retailers, where shoppers have the option of buying online or at the retailers' stores. on Friday said that their traffic during the holiday season rose 30 percent over the same period last year.

Visits to the online sites of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. grew at a faster rate for the September to November period than visits to dominant players eBay and Amazon, Citigroup noted. While visits to Wal-Mart and Target grew 35 percent and 64 percent, respectively, eBay posted 17 percent growth and Amazon 20 percent.

The websites of specialty apparel retailers, the survey found, were more visually interesting than those that offered broader assortments of goods. Standouts were, and the online channels of Limited Brands Inc. Victoria's Secret, Federated Department Stores Inc. Macy's, American Eagle, and the Gap's Old Navy and Banana Republic.

Finding an online retailer with the popular iPod in stock was a challenge this holiday, the survey found, with both Best and only offering the Nano and video iPod for in-store pickup.

The survey was conducted by Citigroup's retail and Internet teams, who bought 59 products online on December 12, one of the busiest online shopping days, from three categories -- a white cashmere sweater, an Apple iPod Nano or video iPod and a DVD of the Dreamworks film "Madagascar."

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