Cyber Monday Is a Joke

Well, it was a good phenomenon while it lasted.

Cyber Monday -- a phrase coined a few years ago to commemorate the launch of the online holiday shopping season -- is today. That is, of course, if you believe it even exists. Recent data suggest that Cyber Monday is about as real as the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and you know who.

It's a myth. It's a joke. But don't take my word for it. Mull over the latest online holiday shopping data from market researcher comScore.

Non-travel retail sales

2006

2007

Gain

Nov. 1 - Nov. 23

$7.98

$9.36

17%

Thanksgiving Day

$0.21

$0.27

29%

Black Friday

$0.43

$0.53

22%

Source: comScore. Dollar amounts in billions.

How big is the heart of the Grinch who stole Cyber Monday?
As I write, we're just hours into Cyber Monday, so it's easy to wonder if I am being premature in killing off cyberspace's feel-good marketing tool. I'm not. Did you catch the trend? November was just coasting along until the holiday weekend kicked in. Friday, and to a lesser extent Thursday, have traditionally belonged to the bricks-and-mortar chains. It explains why your Thursday morning paper weighs a ton, loaded with circulars for door-buster bargains.

But the huge e-tail spurts on Black Friday -- and especially on Thanksgiving itself, when many retailers are either closed or close early -- prove that the online shopping season is an early riser these days.

I have a three-pronged theory. The first part has to do with the origin of Cyber Monday itself. The reason why the Monday after Thanksgiving has been handed over to e-commerce is because it's the first day many consumers return to work after a four-day weekend. It's awfully tempting to go surfing for bargains today on the corporate Web connection; ideally while you're on a break (though I'll never tell).

But every passing year brings broadband connectivity to more and more homes, making it a lot easier to start Web shopping sprees from home between rounds of turkey leftovers.

The second part of my theory is that more bricks-and-mortar chains have embraced the Internet. Although a chain like Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) won't make its juiciest, limited-quantity door-buster deals available for e-shopping -- reserving that reward for those brave enough to weather the elements and camp out in long lines -- many of the other advertised deals are. It's an easy decision for a retailer to make. Free up sales associates to ring up sales in the real world while an automated server processes the Internet buying.

The third part of my "Cyber Monday is fiction" theory stems from the ordering window we have online these days. Consumers used to be scared of placing holiday gift orders online. What if they don't arrive on time? Toys "R" Us learned the hard way eight years ago, when several orders didn't arrive until after Christmas. That sent the toy-retailer scrambling to Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) for fulfillment the following year, although the country's second-largest toy retailer (after Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) ) is now apparently doing fine on its own. And so the window has opened wider.

The window to somewhere
Remember when you had to place your Web orders at least a week before Christmas to guarantee timely deliveries? That is so 2003, my friend. Amazon.com's Prime membership program provides free two-day shipping (and $3.99 overnight shipping) on anything that it stocks at its own distribution centers.

Stores also get in on the fun, widening the window even closer to Christmas Day. Most chains allow you to place orders online and pick them up at local stores. Circuit City (NYSE: CC  ) takes the cake, guaranteeing a 24-minute in-store pickup process or rewarding delayed shoppers with a $24 gift card.

And, yes, online gift cards have also extended the holiday shopping season. Retailers don't mind pitching gift cards, even if it means that sales can't be booked until the cards are actually redeemed (or expire or go unredeemed for a certain period of time).

What gift cards in cyberspace ultimately do is allow procrastinating shoppers to check off recipients even on Christmas Day itself. If you have the luxury of time, avoiding a virtual gift certificate voucher can be a creative process. Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK  ) lets a buyer upload a digital snapshot to put on the plastic gift card. Other seasoned etailers like Amazon and RedEnvelope (Nasdaq: REDE  ) will ship gift cards for free.

You can even get specific about what gift cards will buy. For instance, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) allows buyers the opportunity to give subscriptions to nonsubscribers.

Yes, e-commerce has matured over the years. It's also a lot wider than you expected. We're no longer talking about a tight window with a girth of two to three weeks tops. You've got a whole month this year to get it right without battling for a mall parking spot.

Cyber Monday? It was a neat promotional tool while it lasted, although I'm sure the industry is far happier to know that its relevance lasts far longer than one day.


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