After Black Friday, retailers eye Cyber Monday

After a better-than-expected post-Thanksgiving shopping day, the retail industry is hopeful for strong back-to-work online sales, often a bellwether for overall holiday figures.

Black Friday wasn't as disastrous as many feared (except, of course, for the poor Wal-Mart employee trampled to death by impatient shoppers).

As far as sales go, overall, the retail industry did get a slight boost . The National Retail Federation counted 172 million shoppers visiting Web sites and brick-and-mortar stores between Thanksgiving and the following Sunday, which is up from 147 million last year. In total, the NRF expects holiday sales to rise 2.2 percent this year to $470.4 billion.

But it's tough to say whether today, known as Cyber Monday, will prove as promising for retailers. In fact, this has been one of the hardest holiday sales seasons to predict in years, according to retail analysts, since the current economic recession is wreaking havoc on consumer confidence.

Cyber Monday is traditionally the day online retailers push as the best day for holiday deals. So far, analysts are mixed as to what to expect when the last order is placed at midnight tonight.

"We're going to hesitate in suggesting Cyber Monday will be as shiny as Black Friday."
-- John Squire, chief strategy officer, Coremetrics

"We certainly saw Black Friday had some surprising bright spots . But we saw buying start to fall off Saturday and Sunday," said John Squire, chief strategy officer for online retail tracking service Coremetrics. "We're going to hesitate in suggesting Cyber Monday will be as shiny as Black Friday."

Early Monday, traffic to the retail Web sites his company follows and the number of orders placed or started were down 10 percent compared with the same time last year, Squire said. Of course, he cautioned, the day is not over. The final tally won't be ready until Tuesday.

Cyber Monday has typically proved to be an accurate measure of the overall shopping season, according to ComScore. Though individual year-over-year growth rates for online spending each day varies throughout the holiday sales season, during the past few years Cyber Monday has been within a few percentage points of the final holiday season growth rate.

But many people have already done their shopping online. ComScore on Sunday reported that online, nontravel retail sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving reached $534 million. That's up from the same day a year ago, but just barely--online retail sales rose just 1 percent, from $531 million.

So will online shoppers come out again and respond to the aggressive deals being offered today? Again, it's tough to say due to the volatile economy, and the competing influences on consumer spending, Gian Fulgoni, chairman of ComScore, said in a statement.

But even if Cyber Monday doesn't bring in the sales retailers were hoping for, all is not lost. Typically, while the Monday after Thanksgiving produces the first sales spike for online sales, it's not the biggest spike.

That will likely be two weeks from today, Monday, December 15, according to Ken Cassar, an analyst with Nielsen Online.

For the past three years, the third Monday following Thanksgiving was the function of two factors. "It's a Monday, and Mondays are the most heavily trafficked days of the week as people get back to work. And it's the Monday that's closest to Christmas without being dangerously close as far as shipping goes," he said.

Overall, the calendar could actually be the industry's ally for the rest of this year.

Though Thanksgiving was later this year, Christmas will fall on a Thursday, which gives consumers two more days of online shopping with guaranteed shipping this year than last, when Christmas was on a Tuesday.

Because of that, Squire of Coremetrics says that in addition to December 15, the following Tuesday and Wednesday will be big days too, since those often offer the last chance for free shipping from retailers.

"That's usually the last big spike of online buying," he said. "Expectations are we'll see that again."

But how big of a spike is relative. Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, said Black Friday provided a welcome bump in sales from what had been shaping up to be a "weak" November for his company. But Cyber Monday and beyond should be better.

At Overstock.com, Byrne said, "We'll be happy if we end up anywhere near zero percent growth."

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

 

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