NEW YORK -- When shoppers decide where to buy online these days, they're not looking just for lower prices or top-notch customer service anymore.
Americans love to get something for nothing, so those Web sites offering incentives -- such as free dinners, discount coupons or frequent-flier miles -- are enticing many shoppers to keep coming back for more.
A new survey found that nearly 50 percent of shoppers said they would be loyal to a Web site if they were rewarded for their continued patronage.
"It's a great time to be a consumer on the Internet," said Kate Delhagen, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "There is a mad rush to acquire customers on the Web and many sites will do anything to get them to stay."
With thousands of options to choose from on the Internet, online retailers see incentives -- giveaways of something "extra" that shoppers don't have to pay for -- as an easy way to distinguish their site from the next. These E-merchants are taking their cues from the success that airlines, credit-card issuers and traditional retailers have had with their loyalty programs.
A RECENT SURVEY OF about 600 people by Total Research Corp. found consumers participate in 3.2 loyalty programs on average and 60 percent said they spend more with the company that offers their favorite loyalty program than they did before.
"The concept of incentives is as old as your grandmother," said Patricia Campbell, head of interactive direct marketing at barnesandnoble.com, which offers a variety of rewards. "Now, Internet merchants are taking a traditional model and using it to create changes in how consumers spend over a long period of time."
While the Internet buying boom only started in the last few years, the number of shoppers who say they look for incentives when they decide where to buy online mirrors the expectations that they have when shopping at traditional retailers.
A new survey of 1,905 online shoppers found nearly 53 percent said that they would buy more if incentives were offered. Only 15 percent said that rewards would not influence them to make more purchases.
In addition, about 47 percent of respondents said they would be more loyal to a site that gave rewards, compared with 17 percent that wouldn't be wooed for the long-term by incentives. The survey was conducted for The Associated Press by the Greenwich, Conn.-based Internet research firm NFO Worldwide.
JODI JILL, A LITERARY agent from Boulder, Colo., spent enough on the Internet in the past year that it helped her get a free round-trip ticket on United Airlines between Denver and Los Angeles.
"Imagine that I didn't have to pay for a thing," said Ms. Jill, who frequently shops at barnesandnoble.com and CDNow. "It was free, and most of the miles came from just shopping on the Internet."
Most of Jill's mileage came from ClickRewards, a popular incentive program used by more than 40 Internet merchants, including ETrade, the Gap.com, Yahoo.com and OfficeMax.com. ClickRewards is run by San Francisco-based Netcentives.
Instead of developing their own loyalty programs, many merchants are turning to outside companies such as Netcentives and MyPoints.com that let consumers shop at an array of sites and pool their reward points. These outside programs also appeal to merchants because they offer more rewards and a larger customer base.
Shoppers automatically enroll in ClickRewards after purchasing something at a member site. They receive a notification e-mail and then get points for every dollar spent.
SOME MERCHANTS RUN specials that allow shoppers to get bonus points for signing up. For instance, online brokerage firm ETrade is offering 25,000 points to anyone who opens an account of $25,000 or more.
Consumers can trade in their points for a number of rewards. A Braun pocket razor takes 1,200 points, while a free round-trip domestic airline ticket costs 25,000 points.
While ClickRewards is designed primarily to encourage shoppers to keep coming back for more, other programs use rewards as a means to collect consumer information and refine their direct-marketing.
At MyPoints.com, shoppers must first fill out a questionnaire containing personal data before they are eligible for any rewards.
Based on their profiles, MyPoints.com sends e-mails from its 250 clients -- including Disney, Dell Computer and macys.com -- that best suit shoppers' interests. By just opening the e-mails, consumers can get points. If they then shop at the site, they are entitled to even more.
Included among the freebies: dinners at Red Lobster, discounts on Carnival cruises, free long distance with Sprint and gift certificates to retailers such as Target, Sports Authority and Sharper Image.
"Until recently, the focus of the retail community on the Internet was acquiring customers, but now it is shifting to `How do I get them to stick around?"' said Steve Markowitz, chairman and chief executive officer of MyPoints.com, which now has more than 2.5 million consumers enrolled in its program.
While more and more online merchants are stepping up their incentives, analysts say that the programs are just getting started and shoppers should expect a flood of activity in the coming year.
Many Web sites are expected to start their own programs, while more will latch on to the already successful incentives networks.
"We've only seen the beginning of this and in the next few years, shoppers will see a barrage of incentives and deals," said Forrester Research's Ms. Delhagen. "You name it and they'll be giving it away."