After Black Friday comes Cyber Monday 2009. Is it more virtual than real?

Cyber Monday 2009 is not the biggest online shopping day of the holiday season. But if the hype continues, it could yet become just that.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago — First Black Friday, then Cyber Monday. Is all the media hoopla about frantic, sales-hungry shoppers at malls and at their desktops during an extended Thanksgiving weekend an accurate portrayal of consumers’ holiday-shopping behavior? Or is it a reflection of what retailers wish were the case?

To be sure, retailers have expanded the weekend selling rush through so-called Cyber Monday, just as they have dialed back Black Friday store hours a bit further each year, now encroaching onto Thanksgiving night. The National Retail Federation, a trade organization representing 1.6 million retailers, says Monday is the kickoff to the online shopping season and a day when online sales spike.

That, however, may be more wishful thinking than a representation of consumer behavior. Each year since 2005, when the National Retail Federation (NRF) coined the term “Cyber Monday,” sales on that day were dwarfed by sales dates later in December. Last year, for instance, Cyber Monday sales reached $846 million, while the biggest online sales day was Dec. 9, with $887 million, according to Permuto, which tracks online shopping trends.

Indeed, Cyber Monday originally described a potential trend: consumers returning to work the Monday after Thanksgiving who were still eager to shop but had no recourse to do so except online.

The recognition of Cyber Monday among retailers has been gaining momentum: The NRF reported that 87 percent of retailers will have special Cyber Monday promotions this year, such as free shipping or one-day sales, up from 84 percent last year and 72 percent in 2007.

Though retailers are pulling out the stops to cheerlead for holiday sales in a recession, boxing consumer trends into a preconceived shopping holiday does not pass muster when it comes to the ways consumers actually shop.

In 2005, the year Cyber Monday was “invented,” it was not the busiest online shopping day. That designation, according to Ecommerce, went to Dec. 15. In fact, consumers generally spend more online as Christmas and Hanukkah draw nearer. The greatest window for online holiday shopping is Dec. 5-15, which allows for delivery and even possible returns.

As the media embrace Cyber Monday as an actual phenomenon, the day may eventually live up to expectations. Between 2005 and 2008, Cyber Monday sales increased 74 percent, beating the 60 percent revenue increase for other days that have been online sales record-holders for the holiday season. As Internet retailers boost special promotions, free shipping, and outreach on Cyber Monday, the gap could close further in coming years.

At least on Cyber Monday shoppers are spared the ignominious and ubiquitous term “doorbusters.” No Black Friday ad campaign this year is without the term, meant to describe sales so enticing that they will generate a mad rush for sales. But a Black Friday sales rush evokes last year’s tragic death of Jdimytai Damour, a security guard at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y. who was trampled when doors burst open at 5 a.m. and consumers stormed the store to shop. His death is cited as an example of consumerism run amok and remains a sore subject for the retailer.

Besides dealing with a lawsuit by Mr. Damour’s family, Wal-Mart faced a criminal investigation that forced it to hire safety experts who helped create a crowd-management plan for its New York locations. It also set up a $400,000 compensation fund to benefit victims injured in the stampede. To date, three shoppers have qualified for payment.

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