And you thought it would never happen. Yet according to a new report from Forrester Research, the online ecommerce universe is likely to stop expanding within four years. The report, released earlier this week by Forrester analyst Joe Butt, asserts that the general ecommerce market will undergo vast consolidation, with consumer-oriented sites among the hardest hit. The report, titled "Is Nonstop Enough?," also contends that an important survival requirement for Web sites — near-100 per cent uptime — will be too expensive for most consumer-oriented sites to maintain on their own, thus precipitating a wave of mergers. The report also contends that general ecommerce expansion will come to a halt by 2004. That means the number of companies joining the ecommerce fray will likely slow down, while the number of new buyers will level off as well. But existing purchasers are still expected to spend increasing amounts. "The first to consolidate will be retail sites, due to the expense of driving traffic to their site," Butt wrote. "Customer acquisition costs are very expensive," he said, with many consumer sites having already spent that money on such things as Super Bowl ads. Now that customers have been drawn in, said Butt, the challenge for dot-coms is making sure they return. In order to garner return customers, ecommerce sites will have to focus on business intelligence, customer relationship management and near-perfect uptime so that consumers' "quality of experience" is richer, he noted. "The trade-off may be uptime for richness," Butt said. Forrester analyst Joe Sawyer, who wrote a separate brief on the topic, described what he sees as the forthcoming consolidation of the e-retail sector as "ground zero." Online retailers suffer "from the worst product differentiation and the most problematic access to funding." Sawyer cited the multiple pet-product sites that have sprung up over the past year (such as pets.com) and predicted that most pet sites "won't see 2001." Butt said the report shouldn't be interpreted as a death knell for e-retailing. While the number of new retail sites is expected to decline, business-to-business ecommerce is poised to expand. Butt said that because ecommerce business-to-business organizations rely less on expensive marketing gimmicks, "the cost of customer acquisition is more efficiently spent." As a result, vertical e-marketplaces will continue to bloom.