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American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are clicking and catalog-ordering their way through the holidays.

Troops serving a year in the war zone just can’t hop down to Macy’s to buy a gift for their sweetie, so they’re ordering merchandise from afar, and apparently more so than ever before. According to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, online and catalog sales from both operations are up 29 percent over last holiday season.

Troops without Internet access are also ordering through “Operation Forward Santa,” an AAFES initiative allowing them to simply pick an item from a downrange brochure. All troops have to do next is drop the completed order form off at the exchange at their post. Everything but gift baskets and flowers are gift-wrapped for free. So far, troops have spent about $10,000 via the brochures.

“Some guys are obviously in locations where they don’t have an Internet connection, or even a phone,” said Judd Anstey, spokesman for AAFES headquarters in Dallas.

Beyond the Santa number, Anstey didn’t have a separate figure isolating gift purchases per se. “You can’t say what they’re buying for,” he said. But the most popular items being purchased via catalog, brochure or online from Iraq and Afghanistan are flowers, electronics, jewelry, video games, toys and lingerie. It’s probably safe to say the flowers, jewelry, toys and lingerie will find their way under a tree.

Other online retailers may well be seeing the same trends from deployed troops, but proving it is tough. Amazon.com offers gift-wrapping and mailing, but isn’t saying how successful it is. Craig Berman, a company spokesman, said the company typically doesn’t discuss traffic numbers, and wasn’t sure whether Amazon could even discern a servicemember in Baghdad from anyone else.

J.C. Penney maintains a Web page and telephone hot line specifically for customers with military addresses. However, spokeswoman Daphne Avila said the company didn’t track the numbers separately.

What are troops buying for themselves as well as others? Electronics and electronic media, at least at AAFES.

“Electronics are a big deal,” Anstey said. “There’s a lot of free time on their hands.”

The exchange has muscled up its online offerings of video games, computers, portable DVD players, music and movies.

Apparently, it’s been noted. The December 2004 edition of Consumer Reports said that in a poll of 10,180 readers, AAFES ranked second only to Amazon in the “Best Price” category for home electronics. Just like exchanges in calmer regions, locations downrange sell electronics in store as well as online or via catalog. And holiday catalog spree or not, physical stores apparently still have advantages.

“AAFES sells electronics on and offline,” exchange commander Maj. Gen. Kathryn Frost said in a news release. “Offering electronics in brick and mortar environments provides several benefits, not the least of which are the ability to see, touch and compare products as well as the instant gratification mail order can’t provide.”

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