NEW YORK – Retailers who saw Thanksgiving holiday sales drop off as the weekend progressed stepped up online promotions on the day known as "Cyber Monday" to try to get consumers tired of the crowds at stores to keep shopping.
But after weeks of already heavy discounting both at regular stores and online, experts were doubtful that the day would give much of a lift to what is still expected to be one of the weakest holiday seasons in years.
"People are expecting that deals will only get better as we approach the Christmas time frame," said Youssef H. Squali, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. "So while Cyber Monday is significant I wouldn't say today is the only day to track. People may opt to wait a little more."
The Monday after Thanksgiving was dubbed "Cyber Monday" by the National Retail Federation trade group in 2005 to describe the unofficial kickoff to the online retail season — when customers shopped at their desks as they returned to work. But with more deals advertised ahead of time and more consumers with high-speed access at home, the day has lost some of its luster.
Crowds turned out for early morning specials after Thanksgiving on "Black Friday" — so dubbed because it had historically been the day retailers turned profitable for the year — but many analysts say they were thinner than last year and shoppers were focused on bargains and smaller-ticket items.
According to preliminary figures released Saturday by ShopperTrak RCT, a research firm that tracks total retail sales at more than 50,000 outlets, sales rose 3 percent to $10.6 billion on Friday from the Black Friday a year ago. ShopperTrak RCT was expected to release data for the combined Friday and Saturday period later Monday.
While "Cyber Monday" is not the busiest online shopping day of the year — that day usually occurs later in December as shipping deadlines approach — retailers who have seen consumers pull back amid the recession stepped up their online deals — offering discounts on clothes and gadgets, set amounts off purchases, free shipping and more.
Merchants want consumers to keep shopping after seeing modest sales gains over the Thanksgiving weekend.
John Morris, an analysts at Wachovia Capital Markets, wrote in a note published Monday that traffic and business were strong on Black Friday but that the "strength did not carry through the remainder of the weekend as business fell off sharply on Saturday."
"After a slow start to November, we believe strength on Black Friday was not enough to save the month," he wrote.
That was echoed by Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman Centers Inc., which operates 24 malls in 11 states. Based on a sampling of malls, business for the overall three-day weekend was unchanged from the holiday weekend a year ago, she said, with a spike in sales on Friday that quickly fizzled for the remainder of the weekend.
Business on Friday was unchanged to up mid-single digits from a year ago. But on both Saturday and Sunday, sales were unchanged to down slightly.
"The momentum didn't continue," she said.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group, predicts sales for the Thanksgiving weekend were at best even with the holiday weekend a year ago. A more complete sales picture of the weekend will be known by Thursday, when the nation's retailers report November same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year.
The NRF optimistically predicts that overall holiday spending will rise 2.2 percent from a year ago — which would be the slowest growth since 2002. However, many analysts expect the period could show a rare drop in sales.
Retailers are hoping the traffic has migrated online. Nielsen Online reported that online traffic grew 10 percent year-over-year on Black Friday to 31.7 million unique visitors across 120 online retailers. And online billing site PayPal said transactions increased 34 percent and online payment volume rose 26 percent on Black Friday.
Internet research company comScore said Sunday that online spending on Thanksgiving Day and Friday was up 2 percent compared with a year ago. While slightly better than the flat growth comScore has predicted for the holidays, the increase is still drastically lower than the 19 percent growth last year. For the holiday season to date, online sales are down about 4 percent to $10.41 billion, according to comScore.
ComScore spokesman Andrew Lipsman said "Cyber Monday" is a busy day for online retailers but not the biggest. It was just the ninth busiest day in 2007 and the 12th busiest day in 2006.
"Cyber Monday is never really the heaviest online spending day," Lipsman said. "It (marks) the first significant spike in online spending, but then spending continues to build really until about the middle of December."
This year, the most likely candidate for busiest online spending day is Monday, Dec. 15, he said, as consumers rush to make sure gifts can be shipped in time for Christmas.
The online deals weren't enticing Victoria Pericon, a mom in her thirties who lives in New York, to shop.
"With three children and other family members on list to shop for," she said, "I will be waiting until closer to Christmas to do my shopping because I believe that is when stores, both online and offline, will offer better deals."