Online purchases by women, already the majority of Web surfers, are exploding — and merchants all over cyberspace are taking note.

Women have long been the driving force behind off-line holiday shopping, and this year they flexed their shopping muscles via the Web. That meant a very merry Christmas for e-tailers in female-dominant categories like jewelry, flowers, and home and garden, despite some early forecasts that consumer electronics would be the hot ticket in 2004.

Jewelry was the single biggest growth category, with a 113% increase in spending over last year. Women shoppers also helped make apparel the No. 1 category overall, with 16% growth and $3.8 billion in sales, according to the eSpending Report, released Jan. 3 by Goldman Sachs & Co. (GS ), Harris Interactive, and Nielsen/NetRatings. Shoppers spent $1.4 billion more on clothes this year than on consumer electronics.

It was one of the few remarkable trends in what was an otherwise unremarkable two-month shopping season. This year saw shoppers spend about 25% more online vs. 2003, according to the eSpending Report. That’s similar to sales totals reported days earlier by VeriSign (VRSN ) and researcher comScore Networks, and about what preseason forecasts anticipated.

Just how much was spent varies from survey to survey, with the eSpending Report topping the list at $23.2 billion. VeriSign’s tally, which tracks only sales from Thanksgiving to Dec. 27, was the lowest at $8.8 billion.

At 25%, e-tailing’s growth has slowed from the early days, when sales leaped by 50% or 100% annually, but analysts are still calling 2004 a good, solid year. As usual, Mondays were the biggest shopping days of the week, with traffic peaking around Dec. 17 — the last days to ship a present by ground and guarantee delivery by Christmas morning.

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