Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday

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The term “Black Friday,” which refers to the busy retail shopping day following Thanksgiving, was coined in the 1960s by the Philadelphia Police Department to describe the heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic that descended upon the city’s downtown area.

It has since come to mean many different things to many different people: from the employees who work long, exhausting hours in retail stores; to the shoppers who jostle and race with each other to get a hot new toy or great bargain; to the bookkeepers who are relieved by the fact that their companies are finally turning a profit that year, going from “red” to “black” ink on the strength of post-Thanksgiving sales.

The somewhat cheerier phrase “Cyber Monday” came upon the scene in 2005 after Shop.org, part of the National Retail Federation, identified significant increases in online sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2004. This phenomenon was explained as the result of people getting back to the office on the week following Thanksgiving and shopping online instead of working. (Note: I was one of the people on the bandwagon that year.) Well, at least they’re still contributing to the economy, right?

Despite its relative newness — and this year’s rough economy — Cyber Monday had very real results this year. Research organization comScore reported that online sales reached approximately $846 million on Dec. 1, a 15 percent increase over Cyber Monday 2007. Additionally, Nielsen Online found Web traffic to the retail Web sites on its Holiday eShopping Index increased 10 percent over last year. Unique visitors to those sites reached close to 36 million.

On the other hand, Black Friday was a rather grim affair for many brick-and-mortar retailers this year. Stores slashed prices on most of their stock to lure customers. The effort did not exactly pay off. There was a less than 1 percent overall rise in sales from Black Friday and the two following days this year compared with 2007, according to findings from ShopperTrak RCT’s National Retail Sales Estimate. But while revenues were up for some, profits generally didn’t budge due to the deep discounts sellers offered to attract consumers.

It’s tempting to read too much into this. Observers might be inclined to think there’s some “paradigm shift” in holiday shopping afoot. When you look deeper into the numbers, though, you find that things haven’t really changed that much — yet.

Overall sales on Black Friday reached $10.6 billion, more than 10 times the total online sales on Cyber Monday. So even on the worst Black Friday in years, in-store shopping still topped Cyber Monday’s online commerce handily.

Further, all is not merry and bright for online sales: Despite the Cyber Monday spike, online shopping during the entire holiday season to date — which began Nov. 1 — is actually down a bit from 2007, according to comScore.

Still, there’s definitely a certain sanguine atmosphere in the e-commerce industry right now that we’re not seeing in the world of physical retail. As more people opt out of the collective madness of Black Friday and more retailers shutter their stores, the future of holiday — and year round — shopping will become apparent, even if that future is still several years away.

– Brian Summerfield, bsummerfield@certmag.com

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