COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Cyber Monday challenges Black Friday for holiday sales

When “Black Friday” came into the American lexicon a decade ago, I was reminded of Black Thursday, the day the stock market crashed, Oct. 24, 1929. How did this new phenomenon relate to a good day in retailing? It sounded ominous to me.

Slowly I came to realize that Black Friday meant the merchants were going to make a profit from the rush to start Christmas shopping. This “black” referred to being in the black, or being profitable, not a foreboding sign of disaster. So the Friday after Thanksgiving grew and grew to be the biggest day in retail sales each year.

However, modern times have introduced a new form of shopping that might bypass Black Friday. It is so-called Cyber Monday, the day after the holiday weekend when the online shoppers look for deals. Why Monday? Observers note that employees wait to get to their place of business for aggressive shopping on their employers' computers and time. Presumably office workers don’t want to spend their holiday in crowded malls when they can leisurely shop while getting paid.

Many economists and retail consultants see online shopping as the big new thing that will force retailers to trim their traditional store outlets down to display rooms and take all orders from iPads and smartphones. Already customers are using these devices to compare prices while shopping in a store. If they find a better price, they purchase online while in the competitor’s store. Big retailers complain they are being used as showrooms without getting the sale.

This year, with the perceived turnaround in the recession, retailers pushed the envelope to expand the Black Friday bonanza. Shopping hours slipped back to Thursday, compromising Thanksgiving as a day for the family to gather and bond. Scores of ads and commercials promoted stores opening at midnight (still keeping it Black Friday) while some large chain stores opened their doors at about dinnertime to create Black Thursday.

Of course this plan is under fire by various consumer groups, labor unions and community organizations that would like to see more blue laws prohibiting work on the Sabbath and national holidays. The large non-union discount retailers are mostly the ones with the early hours, despite organized employee protests and threatened walkouts.

Here are some of the basic stats to illustrate how important Black Friday and Cyber Monday are to retailers. Holiday sales this year are projected at $586 billion, a 4 percent increase, according to the National Retail Federation. The average spending per person in November and December will be $749.51, according to a report in U-T San Diego. To lure buyers into stores early, many hot items were advertised as "limited quantities." That was all the frantic shopper needed to hear to stand in line all night or skip Thanksgiving dinner to get in on the deals.

When did all this chaos begin? Apparently the police in Philadelphia who had to deal with traffic and pedestrian congestion on the Friday after Thanksgiving began to call it Black Friday (meaning trouble) in 1961. After 1975, the term expanded beyond Philadelphia and switched to meaning a good day for retailers by being profitable. But it was not the busiest shopping day of the year until after 2003. The last Saturday before Christmas held first place in prior years.

Cyber Monday is a more modern phenomenon that emerged with the digital age. Records show that Shop.org first promoted the term on Nov. 28, 2005, declaring it was becoming the busiest online shopping day of the year. Retailers claimed their online sales increased 77 percent on that Monday in 2005.

Surely the subsequent years have validated the amazing growth of online purchases on Cyber Monday. The annual rates of increase from 2007 to 2011 are: 20, 16, 5 (recession year), 16 and 22 percent. Any business would welcome these annual escalations.

However, bosses are getting wise to their employees doing personal business on their payroll. In 2011, 7 percent had fired an employee for holiday shopping, and 54 percent blocked access to certain websites. Still, the volume of Cyber Monday sales continues to increase. This year retailers reported $1.5 billion in sales, a 20 percent increase.

After the holiday weekend and Cyber Monday passed, there were numerous accounts of how well the early openings enhanced the Black Friday sales records. Over at the malls, an estimated 247 million shoppers spent an average of $423 over the four-day weekend.

In an effort to keep them coming after the holiday rush, many malls have upgraded their facilities to make them entertainment centers for adults, not just teenagers. Locally, Westfield UTC was ready just before Thanksgiving with a $180 million makeover. Time will tell if these conversions can keep ahead of online shopping.


Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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