TO THOSE WHO POOH-POOHED the Internet, there’s new proof that like it or not, the darned thing is an effective information tool. After surveying 3,000 adults in the U.S., The Dieringer Research Group has concluded that the Internet influences nearly 15% of total retail spending (excluding gasoline, food services, and inventories) — a number far higher than previously thought. In the 12 months of the survey period, which ended in the second quarter of 2004, consumers who researched products online spent $180.7 billion on offline purchases, compared to $106.5 billion spent by shoppers who bought directly online. Internet-influenced offline sales surged 31% and direct online sales 14%, compared to growth of only 5% for total retail sales. And the dollars add up: The DRG study found that 17% of U.S. consumers who opened new financial accounts or took out insurance policies used the Internet to research these products, making “the total dollar impact of online information far greater than anyone is talking about,” according to DRG consultant Thomas Miller.