Is this the year that retailers finally harness the power of the Internet? Sure, stores such as Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation (NASDAQ:AMZN) have been getting it for years. The online retailing giant knows how to mine its customers for data and turn user input into compelling content.

However, traditional retailers seemed to spend the past few years approaching the Internet as simply a threat that must be muted -- then buried. That hasn't been the case this year; retailers are taking brilliant risks in using the Web to market both their online stores and their offline strongholds.

Circuit City (NYSE:CC) came through last week with five-hour online sales, and Target (NYSE:TGT) has come on strong with attractive free shipping specials. It doesn't surprise me to see companies such as Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Target crack the list of the five most popular online retailers. The only thing that surprises me is that it took them this long to get there.

Of course, some are also taking a brilliant approach to driving traffic in the real world, too. For the first dozen days in December, Toys "R" Us has been sending out daily emails with special printable coupons that are good only at the physical stores. Even Carnival Cruise Lines (NYSE:CCL) is playing up the "12 days" theme to deliver daily cruise deals in a manner that would make Travelzoo (NASDAQ:TZOO) blush.

The Internet is finally being embraced as the brilliant, cost-effective marketer that it was meant to be. Sure, the wider spread of information and one-click distance from every single rival forces honest markups, but who said a little transparency wasn't good for business in the long run?

Even companies such as American Express (NYSE:AXP) are getting in on the creative merchandising. Well done, retailers. I can only wait and see what retailers have lined up for the 2006 holiday season. It's now just 350-odd days away.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has probably spent more at Wal-Mart's online store than at its offline empire in recent years. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. T he Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.