More consumers than ever are expected to shop online this Christmas as better delivery times, greater ease with search engines and social networking sites like fuel shopper confidence.

Hitwise UK, a leading tracker of internet trends, compiled the forecasts and said supermarket giant Tesco could be among the biggest winners, indicating how much Britain's traditional retailers are expanding in cyberspace.

"We project that the share of visits to retailers will increase by eight per cent over last year, an even stronger rate of growth than experienced in the busy 2005 season," said Hitwise UK's research vice-president Heather Hopkins.

Retail sales should peak in the second and third weeks of December, she added, reflecting consumers' growing trust in online retailers to get presents to them in time to put under the Christmas tree.

"This growth is driven by confidence in online shopping, on-time delivery, ubiquitous use of search engines and referrals from social networks," she said.

Britain is witnessing growth in internet shopping with data showing more and more shoppers now prefer to log on and browse from home rather than face the stress of the high street.

Industry body IMRG showed in August UK internet sales were outpacing total spending in shops by ten times and retailers from Tesco to fast fashion chain Topshop now count their internet sites as their second largest shops.

Only one traditional retailer -- Argos - made it into the top five online shopping sites last year alongside mostly US-based pure play online sites Ebay, Amazon, and price comparison site Kelkoo.

Heather Hopkins said that was all set to change in 2006.

"Tesco was among the top five in August and I would expect it to be in the top five for Christmas, probably it will come ahead of Kelkoo," she said.

Tesco's annual revenues at its online food store tops £1 billion. Although still a tiny percentage of its £38 billion of total sales, Tesco is rolling out a second site Tesco Direct, to sell 8,000 non-food items from cameras to sofas to teddy bears.

Heather Hopkins said other winners in the online Christmas shopping rush would be search engines, like Google and Yahoo, which are expected to be the traffic cops for 35.5 per cent of category visits in 2006, up 18 per cent last year.

Hitwise also forecast the share of visits from social networks, such as MySpace, owned by media conglomerate News Corp and Bebo, would exceed three per cent this December.

"With more advertisers looking to opportunities presented by the likes of MySpace and Bebo, social networks will become an increasingly important source of visits to retailers," she said.

The Hitwise forecasts were based on two years of historical data including share of category visits and past growth rates. The agency daily monitors more than 25 million internet users and 500,000 websites across 160 industry categories.