It's post time for shopping season

Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, the media covers 13,205,129,675 stories about how it's the busiest shopping day of the year. A story in the paper says Biff Smith got to K-Mart at 2 a.m. so he could be first in line to buy the newest Pokemon stuff for his son. Then there's a TV shot of Emma Jean Santaclaus, who purchased $5,000 worth of Barbie accessories for her 27 children. Then on radio, an anonymous man outside any mall says, "Yeah, it's pretty crowded in there. I guess I picked the wrong day to get my watch fixed."

Some of you were in the madness. More sane people, like myself and some friends and family, decided to blow money first at Churchill Downs. That's OK because I plan to give away commemorative Kentucky Derby visors I found stashed away in a dumpster right outside the track. For stocking stuffers, it looks like a lot of folks will end up with losing exacta tickets.

While people are racing around dodging shopping carts and elf actors in parking lots, others have found a more sensible way to take care of purchasing presents: shopping online.

Now if I were getting paid by the word by selected stores, I would push you to specific URLs. But I'm lucky to be paid at all, so I will explain the simple facts you need to know if you shop online.

I'm giving 2-to-1 odds that you will buy something online within the next year. The biggest problem people have with purchasing via a computer is distributing their credit card numbers. If I had to list the three scariest things on earth, they would be: 1. "Halloween" movies 2. Credit cards 3. Realizing the lady at the betting window got my ticket wrong. But rest assured, just about every site that has e-commerce, or something you can buy directly through the Internet, is secured through a specific encryption method. And it's not one that can be broken into by hackers because the forms you send are disguised to look like farm implements. You need not worry that someone will get your credit card number and immediately start buying empty propane tanks.

The second reason people are reluctant to shop online is because you can't see and feel the product you are seeing only a picture. This makes sense, because when looking in some mirrors, objects are closer than they appear. But unless you have to try it on, this is not a good reason. Most store items are wrapped in cellophane or plastic or paper mache anyway. Plus, if you're giving it away as a present, the item may never be seen, much less worn, if you accidentally leave all the gifts at home. Remember, it's the thought that counts!

If you are new to online shopping, it might be best to get something small for yourself, say a hot tub, and make sure everything works OK. But if you are still planning major purchases for Christmas, you'd better hurry. You cannot go to the Web on Dec. 24 and expect 17 lingerie pieces to be shipped overnight.

Probably the easiest things to buy on the Internet are books, games and CDs. You can also purchase tickets to just about anything online. How often have you bought a ticket that has been broken?

A big advantage to shopping via the Net is availability. If you are looking for something specific, just do a search for it, and eventually, you will probably stumble on a page that has it for sale. One exception is jockey Pat Day's spandex. I'm still searching, though.

I've made small purchases in the past, and I'm not sure how much I will shop online during the holidays. But eventually, we will be making more transactions via the Internet, so it doesn't hurt to start now. You must act fast, or the holiday season will HEAD DOWN THE STRETCH, HOLIDAY SEASON UP BY A NECK OVER JANUARY, HERE COMES WINTER SUNSHINE ON THE OUTSIDE, HOLIDAY SEASON WINS IT BY A NECK.