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If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

When it comes to the e-tailing stocks, following that rule would mean taking a vow of silence (and lately, investing in them would mean taking a vow of poverty as well). These companies have been positively shellacked lately. The most-egregious losers: single-category, pure-play e-tailers -- which, when translated into English, means companies that sell one thing or address one market, and sell exclusively on the Internet.

To wit:

eToys

(ETYS)

, which has fallen around 53% in the past month, and is off 92% from its 52-week highs. Or take a gander at

Pets.com

(IPET)

, which went public in mid-February and has dropped some 52% in the month and 76% from its IPO price. Or consider

CDnow

(CDNW)

, down about 56% on the month, and 86% from its 52-week highs. Ouch.

Now, the idea that many sectors of e-commerce -- pets, luxury goods and beauty, to name just three -- are as fragmented as their off-line equivalents, isn't new. And the idea that there would be some sort of shakeout, in which some companies would go under and others would be acquired, is also not new. Nor is the idea that some e-commerce companies may not have a clear path to profitability, and might have to raise a lot more cash in the near future.

A Tale of Two E-tailers: eBay vs. CDNow
Everything that falls must diverge.

But there was a definite psychological shift that began somewhere after the holidays, when traffic figures showed that Internet sites with bricks-and-mortar names, such as

Toysrus.com

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and

KBKids.com

, were holding their own pretty well. Perhaps these companies, with in-store returns and established brand names, would become big forces despite arriving late to the party. And perhaps selling just one category of goods online, competing on price alone, selling over the Internet only, was not going to be an easy way to make money, at least not without an enormous amount of money plowed into infrastructure, technology, order fulfillment and marketing.

All of this worrying coalesced just as interest rates were rising, something that's never good for any consumer-based business. So, when the tech stocks started falling, e-tailers were among the most heavily hammered.

Analysts, venture capitalists and money managers insist that this shakeout is a good thing. Quality companies will rise to the top, while the dogs will die. (Capitalism, capitalism, sis-boom-bah!) Today, investors are favoring e-tailers with dominant brands and multiple ways of making money, like

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report

. It's down about 15% this month and 53% from its 52-week high, but its brand strength is pretty much the envy of Internet retailing. The thought is that if this e-tailing thing is going to work at all, Amazon will be a winner. Amazon is also starting to trade in on its millions of members by selling real estate on site to other companies like

drugstore.com

(DSCM)

.

E-tailers with unique business models also are hanging in there.

eBay

(EBAY) - Get eBay Inc. Report

is down about 26% so far this month, but it's up 30% for the year -- it makes money, has no inventory, and has the potential to get into a bunch of other markets.

priceline.com

(PCLN)

, which also has a unique business model, is down about 30% for the month and 60% from its 52-week high set last spring, but it is up 35% for the year.

Those guys' year-to-date performances are exceptions, though. Most of the e-tailers are lagging, vowing to cut marketing costs, watch their cash, and, in what may seem like an act of desperation, leap into other markets, like B2B.

But that's another story.