Cyber Monday Hits as Retailers Seek Clarity on Holiday Spending

That dull roar you heard during lunch yesterday? The sound of millions of office workers in the United States typing their credit card numbers into e-commerce sites.

At least that’s what retail marketers hoped for, as they looked to the day after Thanksgiving weekend — “Cyber Monday” in marketing parlance — to ameliorate what’s rapidly turning into a lousy online shopping season.

On the other hand the sound could as easily have been the growling of the bear market after the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 680 points, or 7.7 percent, on what’s supposed to be the year’s biggest online shopping day. The ongoing financial gloom’s effect on holiday spending, while still unclear, is bound to be bleak.

It’s certainly not helped in the case of the Internet. ComScore reported on Friday that it had measured $10.41 billion in online retail spending so far this season, as measured from the beginning of November. That’s a 4 percent decline compared with the year-ago period.

The picture for Black Friday was a tad rosier.

Web traffic to Nielsen Online’s Holiday eShopping Index of retail Web sites grew 10 percent year over year on the day after Thanksgiving, increasing from 28.8 million uniques in 2007 to 31.7 million this year. Not bad, until one notes rival ComScore’s estimate that the day brought an increase in online spending — a more crucial metric than traffic — of only 1 percent, to $534 million.

Cyber Monday may offer a clearer glimpse into the dynamics of the holiday season. During the past several years, ComScore found online shopping activity on Cyber Monday has mirrored overall online spending for the entire holiday season.

“While the year-over-year growth rates for individual online spending days vary quite significantly throughout the season, during the past few years Cyber Monday has been within a few percentage points of the final holiday season growth rate,” the researcher noted in a report issued yesterday.

Retail marketers won’t have accurate traffic or spending estimates for Cyber Monday until later today, since ComScore, Nielsen, Chase Paymentech, and other firms require 24 hours or so to crunch their available data. Check back with ClickZ for that information.

The lack of info hasn’t stopped researchers and analysts from weighing in, however, and their prognostications are largely optimistic.

Patti Freeman Evans, research director at Forrester, believes Cyber Monday has taken on a life of its own — becoming a cultural as well as a marketing phenomenon.

“Cyber Monday has become a real retail event, just like Black Friday wasn’t a retail event until advertisers started saying [it was],” she said.

She mentioned two other factors working in the day’s favor: The Web is still riding an adoption curve, and that online shoppers are relatively wealthy.

“Most of the people doing much of the shopping online are much more affluent than average consumers,” she said. “They are in some cases not as affected.”

At least one National Retail Federation (NRF) survey suggests consumers had planned to shop online yesterday. The poll, conducted by BIGresearch, found 37.2 percent said they would shop online the Monday after Thanksgiving. All told, 55.8 percent of people with Internet access at work — about 73 million individuals — said they will use it to conduct holiday shopping during the season, up 1 percent compared with last year.

If consumers aren’t hooked by e-retail sites, it certainly won’t be for lack of bait.

Nearly 84 percent of retailers planned to offer special Cyber Monday promotions, up from 72.2 percent in 2007, according to another survey, also courtesy of the NRF. The most popular were to be specific deals (38.8 percent), e-mail blasts (32.7 percent), and one-day sales (24.5 percent). Just under a quarter of respondents (22.5 percent) said they would offer free shipping on all purchases.

Consumer search activity supports such strategies. Google reports consumers are conducting more searches for promotions, discounts, and value-adds than they have in past years. Among the queries that have risen significantly this season are “coupons,” “Black Friday ads,” “discounts,” and “free shipping.”

For all their efforts, retailers and research firms are less certain what to expect this year than in any year since the advent of the Web, owing to the financial meltdown.

According to Forrester’s Freeman Evans, “Nobody’s experienced how to run their businesses through something like this, regardless of whether they’re online or offline.”

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