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Cyber Monday: The Phantom Boom

How a clever nickname turned a ho-hum shopping day into the holy grail of holiday sales — and why it’s doomed.

Come Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, shoppers will once again wade through crowded malls to seek out sales, kicking off the holiday boom. But those of us with less temerity are creating another kind of critical mass by turning increasingly to Web shopping for the holiday hunt. Web sales are predicted to increase 21% this year according to Forrester Research, down from 24% last year. As most any e-tailer will tell you, their uptick starts right around Thanksgiving, similar to the brick-and mortar-stores’. Their uptick has recently earned a name: Cyber Monday. It’s a catchy way to describe the online sales rush. The problem is no one is really sure it exists.

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Unlike the nickname “Black Friday,” which is said to have been coined in the mid-70s, the term “Cyber Monday” has a short, definite history. The phrase was born on November 21, 2005 in a press release published by Shop.org, a self-styled network for online retailers, which referred to the Monday after Thanksgiving as “one of the biggest online shopping days of the year.” That was a specious claim; at the time, the Monday after Thanksgiving was historically only the 12th biggest online shopping day of the year, according to comScore Networks, an Internet research group. But Shop.org’s motivation was clear enough; it also happens to own CyberMonday.com, a purported clearinghouse for online holiday specials. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the connection.

The ploy was a marketing long shot that might not have gotten any traction at all. Except, it did. No one doubts that online shopping has increased steadily over the last decade. However, slapping a name on the burgeoning trend got it an unprecedented amount of news coverage in 2005 and 2006; publications from USA Today to BusinessWeek to CNET took the opportunity to try to disillusion shoppers about Cyber Monday, calling it “marketing myth” and “hype.” The market research site eMarketer.com even pointed out that customer satisfaction actually dips on that Monday, according to a ForeSee Results survey, hypothesizing that “Cyber Monday shoppers looking for online-only deals were often disappointed when they got to the checkout counter.”

In the attempt to expose the ruse, the media managed to promulgate the use of the name. Online retailers started using it as shorthand for their holiday season sales. Office rumor mills started buzzing. Before long, Cyber Monday was a genuine — if you use the term loosely — phenomenon. In 2006, online sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving totaled $608 million dollars, up from $434 million the year before, making it the single biggest day in the history of online shopping, according to comScore.

It’s now well accepted that Black Friday has some kind of online equivalent, but few agree on which day it is, or why, or even if it should have a name. Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe store Zappos.com, says that Cyber Monday is “a kick-off,” but only that. “For us, the rest of the week will be bigger (until Thursday at least). And then the next two Mondays will be bigger [still].” He actually predicts that the Monday after Cyber Monday “will very likely [be] the biggest day” of the holiday rush. And why shouldn’t he care more about the few weeks after Cyber Monday? In those weeks, online retailers netted $11.7 billion last year. With such sales figures in a one-month period, concentrating on only one day would be hard, and perhaps unwise.

So if Cyber Monday does exist, the question remains: Why? Investopedia.com posits that the Cyber Monday phenomenon exists because shoppers “see items in the shopping malls over the weekend and wait until Monday to buy them online, where they can compare prices.” The Economist has theorized that on that Monday, “millions of Americans take advantage of high-speed Internet in their offices to hunt for presents.” But an increasing number of consumers have high-speed Internet at home, and more and more managers are cracking down on workday surfing with content-blocking software. That might have something to do with the fact that the growth in Cyber Monday spending is actually supposed to be smaller this year than it was last year. In short, the one-day influx might have been an isolated event of 2006, not worthy of any permanent title.

WalMart.com is less precise with its predictions, but the superstore makes it clear that it sees nothing special about Cyber Monday. Ravi Jariwala, a spokesman for the site, says that the online giant is “extending Cyber Monday into ‘Cyber Week,'” suggesting that the day itself isn’t enough of a boom for the company to capitalize on the “act now!” effect of one-day sales. Instead, WalMart.com will offer online-only specials the entire week, with more each day, as the week progresses. Jariwala notes that between November and January, WalMart.com will receive an anticipated 300 million hits; according to Neilsen/NetRatings, only 2.5 million of last year’s holiday hits at Wal-Mart’s site happened on Cyber Monday itself.

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The brilliance of Cyber Monday is in its branding. When the growth of online retail has a name, it becomes a sensational topic of discussion. Googling “Cyber Monday” produces more than 2.2 million hits, up from 779,000 in 2005. People may not be doing all of their online shopping on Cyber Monday — but they’re definitely talking about it.

And all of that talking has begun to cement the term “Cyber Monday” in our national consciousness. In the two years since the term “Cyber Monday” was floated by an obscure Web site, it’s hard to recall whether folks shop online for the Cyber Monday specials, or if the Cyber Monday specials exist because there are so many shoppers already online. In its transformation from statistic to landmark, the day has become a clever chicken-and-egg riddle of online retail. Either way, it is now part of the holiday landscape.