By Robert D. Hof Do a Google search on "Cyber Monday," and you get as many as 779,000 results. Not a bad haul for a term that was created just a week and a half ago to describe the jump in online shopping activity following the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. While Black Friday is the official kickoff of the traditional retail season, the story goes, online retail really takes off the following Monday.
Just one problem: It's not true, at least for many online retailers. Contrary to what the recent blitz of media coverage implies, Cyber Monday isn't nearly the biggest online shopping or spending day of the year. It ranks only as the 12th-biggest day historically, according to market researcher comScore Networks. It's not even the first big day of the season.
For most online retailers, the bigger spending day of the season to date was way back on Nov. 22, three days before Black Friday. What's more, most e-tailers say the season's top spending day comes much later, between around Dec. 5 and Dec. 15.
DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE. So what's up with this Cyber Monday idea? A little bit of reality and a whole lot of savvy marketing. It turns out that Shop.org, an association for retailers that sell online, dreamed up the term just days before putting out a Nov. 21 press release touting Cyber Monday as "one of the biggest online shopping days of the year."
The idea was born when a few people at the organization were brainstorming about how to promote online shopping, says Shop.org Executive Director Scott Silverman, who answered his phone, "Happy Cyber Monday." They quickly discarded suggestions such as Black Monday (too much like Black Friday), Blue Monday (not very cheery), and Green Monday (too environmentalist), and settled on Cyber Monday. "It's not the biggest day," Silverman concedes. "But it was an opportunity to create some consumer excitement."
The genesis of the concept goes back even further. Shop.org member Shmuel Gniwisch, chief executive of the online jewelry site Ice.com, recalls getting an e-mail from Shop.org last year, suggesting that online retailers come up with their own marketing hook to match Black Friday. "The online guys got together and said, 'Let's give people something different,'" he says. "The reality is, we didn't notice anything special" on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
MARKETING WILDLIFE. Now, however, the term has taken on a life of its own in the media. As a result, it may be starting to fulfill its own marketing hype -- at least for some.
Ice.com's Gniwisch, for instance, said Monday's traffic had jumped 82% over the previous Monday, Nov. 21. And sales on Monday, Nov. 28, were up 92% from last year, much higher growth than last year's 68% jump. He attributes that partly to a "Cyber Monday Blowout" sale that did so well -- selling out all the merchandise listed -- that he had to take down the promotion and scramble to add new products to hawk on the site.
Even the World Wildlife Fund joined the fray. It bought a Google search ad, headlined "Cyber Monday is Today." The top-paid ad appearing on the Google results page for "Cyber Monday," it sent shoppers to WWF's Winter Adoption Center, where they could contribute to efforts to save polar bears, pandas, and snow leopards.
"It's actually getting us some click-throughs," says Matt Finarelli, the WWF's manager for online marketing, who bought the keywords after seeing a Cyber Monday piece on The Today Show Monday morning. The ad isn't achieving the top results for the group, though: Terms such as "panda," the animal that graces the group's logo, still are getting much more traffic.
SHOPPERS AT WORK. Even if Cyber Monday remains a relatively small part of their overall season, e-tailers are doing their best to make sure the momentum continues. "Our merchants are doing lots and lots of promotions," says Lorrie Norrington, CEO of Shopping.com, eBay's (EBAY) shopping comparison site. Nevertheless, Shopping.com's biggest shopping day last year was Dec. 6, and Norrington thinks the pattern will be similar this year.
That's not to suggest that the Cyber Monday boost is a total fabrication. The fact is, people do most of their online shopping at work -- 58% of them, according to comScore Networks. They often get started in earnest on Mondays, when they return from a frustrating weekend at the mall to their broadband connections at work.
And for a few online merchants, the Monday after Thanksgiving is indeed the peak day of the season. "We didn't realize it until Shop.org told us about the trend," says Michael McNally, senior brand-relations manager at LEGO Systems, which sells kits direct on its Web site. This year, he expects Cyber Monday orders to rise 10% over Black Friday orders -- though he suspects that's largely because a free-shipping offer on orders over $99 that ends Nov. 30.
PEAK WEEKS. Still, it's clear that retailers were preparing for an uptick in orders to begin well before Cyber Monday. Keynote Systems, which tracks the performance of Internet sites, historically has found that the biggest load on Web sites comes on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, not the Monday. So far, Keynote has seen the greatest degradation in the speed and availability of sites on those two days.
The Web sites of most of the major retailers -- such as Amazon.com (AMZN), Costco (COST), Wal-Mart (WMT), and Target (TGT) -- have held up with few problems. But on BestBuy.com, a typical product search took about 30 seconds on Black Friday, vs. the usual 10 seconds, according to Keynote. At times, Best Buy's (BBY) site was unavailable to as many as 75% of Internet shoppers.
What's more, most online retailers are counting on sales to peak not on Monday, but sometime over the next two weeks or so. "Monday is definitely the biggest day of the year so far," just slightly higher than Sunday, Nov. 27, says Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe retailer Zappos.com. "But we definitely hope it's not the biggest day of the whole year."
RAPID GROWTH. For all the publicity, many retailers didn't hold Cyber Monday promotions at all. Indeed, though Shop.org's survey indicated that 43% of online retailers were planning special promotions for Cyber Monday, plenty did not -- especially the biggest. Neither Amazon.com nor eBay, for instance, has new promotions related to Monday. Shop.org's Silverman concedes that few retailers had time to do specific Cyber Monday promotions, but he hopes the campaign's visibility will spur them to do more specific promotions next year.
They may not need the help this year, since sales are off to a rapid start. Gian M. Fulgoni, chairman of comScore Networks, predicts online sales in November and December will rise 24% this year, about the same as other researchers' forecasts. Sales hit $441 million on Tuesday, Nov. 22, the biggest day to date. Will Cyber Monday top that? Not likely, says Fulgoni.
Hof is BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau chief