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Spoiler alert: There's no such thing as Cyber Monday

Posted by Eric Anderson on November 29th, 2010 at 8:20 am

Also, there’s no Santa Claus. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.

First of all, “cyber”? Must we? “Cyber” was cringe-inducingly uncool by 2001 – back when there was still no shame in having an AOL email address. Coined by Shop.org in 2005, Cyber Monday was apparently meant to describe the tendency of shoppers to go online on this date rather than motoring down to the Woolworth’s five & dime in their horseless carriage.

The anachronism starts with the name, but it doesn’t end there. The premise is that shoppers that have scoured brick-and-mortar bargains over the long weekend will supplement that activity with online shopping at work on Monday, because their dial-up connections at home are too slow to be practical.

But wait: what is this “dial-up” thing you speak of? Broadband penetration in the U.S. is something on the order of 70%, and it’s higher among heavy shoppers. Connectivity hasn’t been a major factor in shopping behavior in a good long while. I hate to be the bearer of more bad news: people shop online at work because they’re bored at work.

It may seem like hair-splitting to argue about why people shop online at work, as long as they do, but I beg to differ: it matters greatly whether retailers treat Cyber Monday as a digitized Black Friday – a melee of frantic bargain-hunting – rather than recognizing the real behavioral differences in online shopping and planning accordingly.  Because one truism in retail strategy hasn’t changed since the days of Woolworth’s: pay attention to how consumer behavior evolves, or start planning your going-out-of-business sale.

Cyber Monday is based on the notion that the day should be a Big Event in roughly the same way as Black Friday, but online shopping doesn’t work that way. It isn’t event-based, and it never will be. Black Friday shoppers are driven by collective participation in a time-based, competitive stalk-and-kill event, like deer season in Wisconsin. Online shopping is comparative and deliberate, and it doesn’t follow a specific sequence, because it doesn’t need to.

The real data shows that consumers are operating in multiple channels throughout the shopping season. Even while they’re cold-conking each other with coffeemakers to be the first to the electronics aisle on Black Friday, they’re studiously comparing online prices; Comcast reports a 28% YOY increase in online shopping on Thanksgiving Day. A year from now, with up to 150 million smart phone users scanning barcodes with their phones to instantly compare prices online and off, Black Friday will be a completely different ballgame, and Cyber Monday will be more out of touch than ever.

Now I will acknowledge, before someone else forces me to do so, that Cyber Monday participation does increase each year, in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. If you cajole enough online retailers into believing that they must offer big Cyber Monday discounts, then before you know it, you’ve got yourself a Cyber Monday, replete with discounts. How ‘bout that.

But I doubt that either retailers or consumers are very well served by participating in this meaningless tautology. In the real world, consumers chase bargains across channels no matter what day it is, and they shop until the last shipment drops before Christmas. For high-consideration purchases, they take their time and do their research. Retailers that focus more on creating superb online experiences and multi-channel consistency – building loyalty over the long term – are far better off than Cyber Monday discounters.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to hop on the high-speed series of tubes that my office provides me. I hear there’s a run on phonograph players over at the Sears & Roebuck website, and I’m prepared to throttle any scoundrel that gets in my way.

3 Responses to “Spoiler alert: There's no such thing as Cyber Monday”

  1. nathan says:

    Hilarious! "But wait: what is this “dial-up” thing you speak of?"

    thanks for the post - well said!

  2. JC says:

    Interesting article. I would agree if we were all just bits of programming, but alas, we're human. You did touch upon a bit of the truth about such "events" as Cyber Monday when you brought up the concept of the tail wagging the dog. Was the swoosh logo anything before Nike spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting it? Was Fashion Friday an event before Anna Wintour said it was? Was Black Friday an event before the retailers said it was? The answer to all of these is no.

    People respond because they want to be a part of something bigger. The idea of Cyber Monday is something bigger. And as you pointed out - the sales on Cyber Monday have been increasing every year.

    Since the first discount was given brands and businesses have been trying to figure out how to use them in a smart way to drive business without undermining profits. Rather than bemoan the loss of Santa Claus [another retail ploy to drive sales], why not think of smart ways to leverage the consumers propensity to look for excuses to spend? Smart being the key word.

    After all, that's what you're in the business to do.

    Next time think.

    Think Cannon


    • Hi Jeff,

      Interesting tagline. The fact that we're dealing with humans -- and actual human behavior -- is rather my point. I'll say again that online shopping behavior tends not to be event-driven in the same way as Black Friday, and so efforts to make it behave that way will compel retailers to offer discounts that may not be to their long-term benefit. My idea of "smart ways to leverage the consumers [sic] propensity to spend" would be to align online sales with specific buying behavior, like offline-to-online comparison shopping using mobile devices. A big discount event can drive up sales on a zero-sum basis, but it's a poor substitute for the more nuanced tactics that shifts in consumer behavior demand.

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