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Cyber Monday, you're no Black Friday

Monday was supposed to be the busiest online shopping day of the year. Right, and Santa has a factory in China that's pumping out PS3s.

There are plenty of happy holiday myths: Santa Claus, elves, flying reindeer, toys that come fully assembled.

Now you can add "Cyber Monday" to that end-of-year fantasy list. Another year has come and gone and, as many predicted, by late in the day on the West Coast, Cyber Monday appeared to be just another busy holiday shopping day.

Retailers, of course, have breathlessly promoted the first Monday after Thanksgiving as a crucial day for online shopping, the day Web cash registers were supposed to be stuffed as bargain hunters got an early jump on holiday gift buying. But in all the effort to hype the day, somebody forgot to tell consumers.

"The holiday season starts like a tide coming in and out beginning in early November. The first tsunami wave hit on Friday."
--Patrick Byrne, CEO, Overstock.com

"We didn't see any unusual (traffic) on the site," said Craig Berman, an Amazon.com spokesman, who added that the company's biggest day last year was December 12.

The term Cyber Monday was coined to help promote online retail and to build an Internet equivalent to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year for brick-and-mortar retailers.

As it turns out, Web stores don't need a new Black Friday. The old one works just fine.

Research firm comScore Networks said that Friday's Internet spending topped $430 million, a 42 percent jump from the same day last year.

"Our sales last Friday were three times higher than any Friday of the previous month," said Patrick Byrne, chief executive of e-tail store Overstock.com. "The holiday season starts like a tide coming in and out beginning in early November. The first tsunami wave hit on Friday."

Friday also saw some top retailers struggling to service all the visitors to their site. While site outages are never good, they are an indicator of large traffic spikes.

Shoppers swamped Walmart.com, rendering the site nearly inaccessible for 10 hours, the company said. Keynote Systems, which measures Web site performance, also noted a brief disruption at Amazon during a sale on deeply discounted Xbox 360 game consoles.

A Keynote spokesman said the company had not seen any similar issues among the top online retailers on Monday.

Put a fork in the myth So was Cyber Monday just a marketing tool to rev up online holiday spending? Sort of. Industry group National Retail Federation coined the term a year ago, but an NRF representative says it never meant to say it was the busiest online shopping day of the year.

"It's not a gimmick," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the NRF, which is based in D.C. "We never said that Cyber Monday was the busiest day of the year. The press picked that up and wrote what they wanted."

Krugman said the NRF created the term to describe a trend after a survey of online retailers discovered that holiday shopping began ramping up on that day. Retailers have used the term as an opportunity for the "ceremonial kickoff of holiday shopping," he said.

One can hardly blame executives at retail sites for steering people to virtual aisles as early as possible. A Web store is up against tighter deadlines than its offline competition.

Retail Web sites must ship holiday gifts, and that takes time. Many Web sites need orders placed by at least December 22 to guarantee delivery by Christmas day. That means that when brick-and-mortar stores are ringing up procrastinators and last-minute shoppers, the Web stores are effectively shut down. It's in the stores' interest to prod shoppers to shop early. Some online stores, including Bestbuy.com, Staples.com and Circuitcity.com were running promotions and cutting prices on Monday.

Among traditional retailers, early reports indicate that big ticket items are selling well. After predicting that the crush of Black Friday shoppers would line up early for good deals on flat-panel televisions, notebook computers and digital cameras, analyst Stephen Baker of The NPD Group showed up to observe the busiest shopping day of the year firsthand.

"The crowds were definitely looking for flat-panel, notebook and desktop deals," he said Monday. "Those things, every store I was in, was sold out of the big screens and desktops as soon as they opened."

He said he found it a little surprising that customers bypassed smaller-size LCD TVs despite attractive pricing.

"Stuff in smaller boxes tends to be harder to see," he said. "From what I could hear and see, everybody seemed to be purchasing pretty much everything. There's a progression--big, more expensive stuff tends to sell out immediately, and there's a progression down to the smaller things. People are focused on saving the most amount of money they can, and the big ticket items tend to get the most amount of interest."

Though the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3 are some of the most sought-after electronics this season, most customers seemed aware that their chances of scoring a next-generation game console were nonexistent. "That's not the kind of thing you wait outside for on Black Friday," Baker said. "It's not about hot products, it's stuff that's going to have the low prices."

Reuters reported that from November 17 to November 24, 14,675 PS3s changed hands on eBay for an average price of $1,186.63. The Wii has sold 26,708 times from November 19 to November 24 on the auction site. The average price for the Wii was $412.

What's unclear, however, is if more Wiis and PS3s sold on eBay on Cyber Monday than on any other day of the year. Probably not.