NEW YORK: The global online population will increase in size by over 40% during the next four years, providing major opportunities for brands and retailers.

Research firm Forrester estimated the worldwide internet audience expanded from under 1bn people in 2005 to 1.6bn in 2009.

Looking ahead, the company predicted this total would climb by 42% in the period to 2014, hitting 2.3bn consumers.

Such a shift will mainly be attributable to emerging nations, and particularly Asia, which should post a surge from 645m to more than 1bn across the timeframe covered by the forecast - a 44% share.

These figures stood at 135m and 241m regarding the Middle East and Africa, and 178m and 255m concerning Latin America and the Caribbean.

Among more mature markets, North America will add 33m netizens, taking it to 292m overall.

Europe could generate an 85m jump, primarily thanks to fast-growing countries in Eastern Europe, as the region registers approximately 500m internet users by 2014.

As most developing economies are expected to deliver annual growth levels topping 10%, Forrester analyst Reineke Reitsma suggested brand owners must adapt.

"Although online population does not immediately correlate with online spending, international e-businesses must understand the changing global online population numbers ... to understand the dynamics of the markets in which they currently operate and plan for international expansion going forward," she said.

In demonstration of this, a third of people connected to the web will come from Brazil, Russia, India and China by 2014, as the BRICs yield an extra 300m users.

"The sheer number of online buyers and the increased online spending per capita will position several emerging markets to challenge North America and Europe from an e-commerce perspective," Reitsma added.

"Companies that want to capture this growing number of online users - and their growing funds spent online - will need to look beyond the markets of North America and Europe and approach their online strategies much more globally."

Forrester revealed just five countries around the world have attracted at least 20% of the 50 largest US internet retailers to date.

Apparel chain Gap opened its first physical stores in China this month, alongside launching a dedicated website serving customers outside big cities.

"China has a long runway and bright future, a growing middle class that is going to keep growing and a love of brands," said John Ermatinger, Gap's Asia Pacific president.

"Since our stores will be in Shanghai and Beijing initially, we want it to be able to extend our reach to many consumers throughout the country."

"We are shipping across the country into tier 3 and 4 cities. We are absolutely jazzed about the type of reach and access."

Eduardo Castro-Wright, vice chairman at Wal-Mart, has also outlined substantial aspirations in this area, targeting India, China and other key regions.

"Global e-commerce … is where growth is to be found in retail," he said at an investor conference last month. "Wal-Mart already has operations in what would represent about 80% of that potential market."

"That bodes very well for the opportunity to leverage the Wal-Mart brand [and] the Wal-Mart presence across all of those markets."

Castro-Wright also argued total e-commerce sales will reach $1.3tn (€950bn; £807bn) in 2015, measured against $700bn during 2009.

Data sourced from Forrester/Reuters/Wal-Mart; additional content by Warc staff