Over the last 15 years, the Internet has completely transformed our society. In less than two decades, this new technology has generated an entire industry, revolutionized marketing practices and changed the way that people communicate, connect and build lasting relationships. The Internet has changed the way we work, relax, watch TV, eat and even exercise.

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From a commercial perspective, online shopping is a phenomenon that has generated a shift in consumer behavior. According to two Pew research studies, this shift is far from over. In September 2010, 58% of Americans conducted research online when determining what products to buy; in 2004, that number was 49%.

Consumers and businesses play an equal part in the innovation that's driving these changes. It all goes back to basic economic cycles. Consumers fuel market demands while businesses respond with a product or item to fill new niches.

Here are six companies that are generating strong momentum in the online shopping world:

Based out of San Francisco, ThredUp is a clothing-swap marketplace where parents can exchange previously-loved clothes and toys. In the real world, clothing-swaps are few and far between because they are time consuming and difficult to organize. ThredUp's marketplace streamlines everything into one browser-friendly interface. ThredUp provides a solution to an age-old problem. Kids inevitably outgrow clothes while parents inevitably struggle to afford new items. For basic swapping, customers pay $5 plus $10.95 in shipping fees.

ModCloth is a boutique-style retailer that specializes in women's clothing. In the real world, boutiques can be expensive and difficult to shop because they run out of inventory quickly. As a solution to this problem, ModCloth provides an extensive inventory of department store alternatives. Above all, the company engages in strong social media efforts to engage their customers. Site browsers can vote on items that they'd like ModCloth to buy and sell. The site transforms shopping by focusing on a holistic shopping experience - something that is challenging to do beyond brick and mortar. (For related reading on social media, see 4 Companies Behind The Social Media Curtain.)

Established in 2005, Etsy has since gained a reputation as one of the strongest handmade marketplaces in the world. It's a network for people to sell their handcrafted items from clothing to jewelry, books, furniture, toys, plants and more. Anyone with a handmade product can create a store on Etsy and anyone can shop there. In the offline world of handcrafted products, buyers and sellers may never connect. Etsy, on the other hand, unites people beyond geography.

Sites like Groupon and LivingSocial bring out the "impulse shopper" in everyone. While a great face-value offer, these products sometimes go to waste. No matter how awesome a deal might be, buyer's remorse will remain ever-present. Lifesta provides a solution to this age-old problem by charging $0.99 plus 8% of the sale price per listing. Users can also compare daily deal prices by geographic area for quick and easy research. (For related reading, see Is Groupon Good For Business?)

Rehash is an online community for trading clothes and books. The goal of the site is to provide a space for people to share items that would otherwise cost money or go to waste. The majority of items in Rehash's database are second-hand, but items are typical of what a shopper would find in a mall. Products found on RehashClothing.com include Banana Republic tops, trendy ankle boots and Hollister T-shirts. RehashClothing belongs to Orpheux Design, a Florida-based web studio and creative agency.

Remember Facebook gifts? They were really fun and thoughtful until people realized that they weren't actually real. In 2008, Rob Carpenter decided to take Facebook gifts to the next level and established Friendgiftr, an app that helps people send real gift cards to people online. Beyond its application to social media shopping via Facebook, MySpace, iGoogle, Bebo and Ning, Friendgftr has a mobile platform so that people can make the most of their crunch time.

The Bottom Line
Next time you're shopping, think outside of the box. You might save time, you might save money and you'll definitely find yourself inspired by new creativity. Keep an eye out for all the new shopping strategies that are coming to life, and make the most of the new currents that will inevitably follow. (For more on saving money, see our article on The Beauty Of Budgeting.)

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