Online shopping is gaining at a time when simply filling up a gas tank to head to the mall can seem like a spending spree.

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To go shopping these days, more Americans are trading in their car keys for a keyboard.

Online shopping is gaining at a time when simply filling up a gas tank to head to the mall can seem like a spending spree.

A number of retailers — including Gap, Victoria’s Secret and J.C. Penney — are experiencing double-digit sales growth at their shopping Web sites, creating a surprising bright spot during an otherwise gloomy time for sales in brick-and-mortar stores.

One popular strategy for getting shoppers’ attention is offering free shipping, in contrast to many other businesses, like airlines, that are adding surcharges and other fees to offset their higher costs.

The Web sites of Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Bon-Ton Stores, Aeropostale, American Eagle Outfitters, Target and Kmart were all offering a deal on shipping this week.

“With gas being such an issue, we know that mall traffic is down more than off-mall traffic,” said Mike Boylson, chief marketing officer for J.C. Penney, which had an 8.7 percent increase in Internet sales in the first quarter of this year.

That is in contrast to a 7.4 percent decrease in sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales and a measure of retail health. “We see more people turning to online because it’s much more efficient in terms of time and money,” Boylson said.

Retailers are walking a fine line in encouraging online sales. Of course, they are happy to attract more shoppers to their Web sites, but not at the expense of in-store sales — an important measure for investors.

Then again, the Web can drive in-store business, whether shoppers go into a store to return an online purchase, or they buy an out-of-stock item through a computer at the store.

Lately Nichelle Hines, an actress in Los Angeles, has been shopping online for everything but gas itself — pet supplies, books, DVDs, water filters, kitchen appliances, a dress, her favorite health drink and materials to build a voice-over booth so she does not have to drive to a recording studio.

“It has saved us,” said Hines, who lives with her boyfriend, Charles, the builder of the booth. “And we really just started doing this three or four months ago just from sheer desperation of spending money on gallons of gas.”

When she does have to drive somewhere, Hines says she goes online first to note the location of the nearest gas station.

“I’m a computer-illiterate person,” she said. “But I’m becoming much more literate as a result of gas prices.”

Victoria’s Secret, too, has had an online-sales increase. Its catalog and Internet sales were up 11 percent in the first quarter of this year while same-store sales declined 8 percent, according to Maggie Taylor, vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service.

Gap had an 11 percent decline in same-store sales in the first quarter, but a 21 percent increase in online sales. About six weeks ago, Gap reinvented its e-commerce operations, enabling consumers to shop the Web sites of all of its brands — Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic as well as its newest, Piperlime, an online shoe store — with a single virtual shopping cart and a flat $7 shipping fee.

“Parents don’t want to drive to four different stores, two different malls,” said Kris Marubio, a spokeswoman for Gap. The new Web design “helps time-pressed and gas-price sensitive parents achieve their back-to-school shopping goals in less time and at less cost,” she added.

The number of shoppers visiting Web sites that offer discounts has jumped, too. Overall, the number of visits to what are known as coupon Web sites increased 21 percent from June 2007 to this June, according to the Internet audience-measurement company comScore Media Metrix., which works with more than 2,000 retailers, had a 186 percent increase in traffic from February to June of this year, according to comScore. Another such site,, which sends alerts to members when their favorite brands go on sale in their sizes at retailers including Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Ralph Lauren and J. Crew, has more than doubled its membership in the past three months, according to the site’s founder, Charlie Graham.

“People are feeling less comfortable going out to the stores or driving two hours to outlet stores because of gas,” Graham said. “It almost doesn’t pay for itself.”

Online retail sales, often made all the more alluring by the lack of sales tax, still represent a small percentage of total retail sales. But Internet sales are expected to surpass $200 billion this year, up from $175 billion in 2007, according to Forrester Research. Given that growth, Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, said last month that it would begin giving retailers’ Internet sales and strategies more weight when analyzing the companies. And retailers like J.C. Penney and Target have begun including online sales in their same-store sales figures.