The immediate problem for the government: to come up with the right formula to track what should be considered cyberspace commerce. That's why the government won't be releasing its new figures until the summer of 2000. But once the tracking is in place, it should prove invaluable in understanding how the American marketplace is evolving. That information will be crucial for businesses, investors and government, says Baumohl, because "as it becomes even easier and more secure to shop by computer, the Internet will grab an ever bigger share of the overall retail market." The implications are enormous for traditional department stores and malls -- which is why the information will be dearly sought by more than just the cyberspace community.
What's the surest sign that Internet commerce is booming? When the government takes an interest. Commerce Secretary William Daley announced Friday that his department would start tracking e-commerce separately instead of lumping it with government figures on catalog sales. Numbers from last year show that consumers spent some $9 billion on the Web. "Clearly Americans are showing greater ease and growing confidence in conducting business on the Web," says TIME senior economic reporter Bernard Baumohl. "The Internet is improving people's productivity at work and expanding the ways they shop."