WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- The Internet, in theory, is an egalitarian force, a democratizing tool that levels the economic playing field for anyone with access to a computer and a modem. Apparently, according to a new survey by STORES Magazine and BIGresearch, that goes for online retailers, too. While the biggest players -- Amazon.com ( AMZN), Wal-Mart Stores ( WMT), eBay ( EBAY), Best Buy ( BBY) and J.C. Penney ( JCP) -- still rank among the top five favorite online retailers, according to STORES Magazine and BIGresearch, many lesser-known companies have now cracked the list. Blair.com, a value-priced men's and women's apparel retailer, sits at No. 18; Newegg.com, a discount electronics site comes in at No. 22; Sierra Trading Post, a discount sports apparel retailer, reaches No. 39; lower-priced apparel retailer Chadwick's jumps to No. 32 from No. 40 last year; and general merchandise discounter Meijer.com, debuts at No. 42. But the best illustration of shoppers' desire for a bargain might be the debut of Craigslist at No. 25. Craigslist.com allows shoppers to nab used, cheap furniture, apparel and other items from other users. According to Phil Rist, executive vice president at BIGresearch, consumers are apparently less hesitant to turn to smaller e-commerce sites in the hunt for competitive prices. "The economy has had an intense impact on Americans' bottom line," says Rist. "No longer is it a hassle to cross towns to find the best deal possible if it saves the family a few extra dollars for groceries or other essential purchases." According to the list, shoppers are even utilizing search engines like Google ( GOOG), Yahoo ( YHOO) and AOL to find the best prices, with those sites landing at No. 8, No. 12 and No. 45, respectively, on the list of "shopping sites."
This agnostic approach to online shopping is apparently helping to propel the market. In February, Forrester Research, a market research firm, projected that U.S. online retail sales would grow 11% to $156 billion by the end of the year. While this jump is still less than the 18% increase seen in 2008, any growth in the current economic climate is arguably worth celebrating. Forrester expects the online retail market to expand during the next five years at an annual growth rate of 10% beginning in 2008. He predicts that by 2012, U.S. online retail sales will reach $229 billion. Not surprisingly, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are realizing the threat these smaller online entities poses, and are beefing up their sites as a result. Wal-Mart Stores made a big announcement this week, saying it will add one million new products to its Web site from three third-party vendors, putting it in closer competition with Amazon and eBay. In August, rival Target ( TGT) said it will end its partnership with Amazon, and build its own Web site by the holidays of 2011. Target outsources most of its e-commerce technology and fulfillment services to Amazon, but that deal is set to expire in 2011 and Target will not renew the contract. Breaking the bonds with Amazon should allow Target the flexibility to add new capabilities and functions to its own Web site. Likewise, in mid-August, Sears ( SHLD) launched a "Manage My Home" resource on its Web site. The feature is being marketed as a go-to destination for homeowners, with answers to home-related questions from home-care and product experts, detailed projects and links for upkeep and maintenance, checklist of things homeowners need to do around the house with links to products and a collection of product owner's manuals. In addition, women's retailers Talbots ( TLB) and Charming Shoppes ( CHRS) are giving a facelift to their e-commerce sites. Both sites are adding personalized features like style advisors, wish lists and fit guides, to make online shopping more interactive. All of which, of course, should make their online shopping experience more like, well, the brick-and-mortar one.
-- Reported by Jeanine Poggi in New York. Follow TheStreet.com on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.