Despite dated name, analysts project strong Cyber Monday

When I hear the phrase "Cyber Monday," my mind immediately goes to AOL chat rooms, dial-up internet and Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World -- not exactly concepts that have stood the test of time.

But even with a name that probably should have been left behind in 2005 when it was first coined, Cyber Monday remains the undisputed champion when it comes to online shopping sales year after year.

In 2021, consumers spent $10.7 billion online on Cyber Monday, more than Black Friday ($8.9 billion) and Thanksgiving ($5.1 billion). And while $10.7 billion is nothing to scoff at, it turns out that last year was actually the first time in Cyber Monday history where sales actually decreased compared to the year before.

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The phenomenon of Cyber Monday has stretched into a multi-week operation.
The phenomenon of Cyber Monday has stretched into a multi-week operation.

As retailers extend holiday shopping deals throughout the month of November, the online shopping holiday's grip on the title for biggest e-commerce day could be loosening. Volume-wise, Black Friday has already surpassed Cyber Monday in terms of number of online shoppers -- 90 million on Black Friday last year versus 77 million on Cyber Monday.

Still, Cyber Monday isn't dead yet. It remains a pivotal anchor of the busy Thanksgiving shopping period, when overall sales continue to climb, year after year. But someone should really think about changing the name.

"When I say 'cyber' to a bunch of 21-year-olds in class, they roll their eyes at me," Carol Osborne, senior instructor of marketing and promotion management at the University of South Florida, said. "It's something their dad would say. No one says that word anymore."

What is Cyber Monday?

Think back to 2005. George W. Bush was president, the country was just a few years into the Iraq War, Y2K mania was not that far behind us and Amazon Prime was just a few months old. Everyone was wearing Livestrong bracelets and the Star Wars prequel trilogy was coming to a merciful end.

Retailers started to notice a big jump in online retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend. This increase in spending spilled into the Monday after, with tons of consumers buying Christmas gifts at their desks when they were supposed to be working. This, according to a 2005 New York Times article, validated the new term "Cyber Monday," a phrase that was coined by the National Retail Federation.

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The shopping-while-working phenomenon continues, but 2005 was a different time. There was no buy online, pick up in store, few buy now, pay later options for smaller purchases and a less nuanced understanding of so-called "omnichannel" retailing, which basically means transacting through multiple platforms. So creating a holiday for something distinctly online, or "cyber," made sense.

Today, however, the retail industry has found a much stronger balance between e-commerce, brick-and-mortar sales and even new channels like social media. We are almost three years into a global pandemic that taught us to appreciate what it's like to be out in the world and have one-of-a-kind experiences. Consumers today demand the best of both worlds, which is why you see retailers blend traditional in-store Black Friday doorbusters with waves of online deals that start in early November.

But just what are those deals, exactly? Are they fantastic discounts on amazing products, or are they just markdowns for the sake of markdowns -- extra things you're going to throw in your cart simply because they're on sale?

Take Sephora, for example, which came up in my conversation with Osborne. Sephora, a cosmetics retailer based mostly in malls, sells some seriously expensive and exclusive products, including from the high-end brand Yves Saint Laurent.

But if you want to buy Yves Saint Laurent's famous Rouge lipsticks or Touche Eclat concealer on sale, you're going to have to wait until one of Sephora's regular 20% off sales scattered through the year. You will not see the biggest, most luxurious brands marked down at the holidays.

"They don't want everyone wearing Gucci," Osborne said. "The minute everyone wears it, the image is lost."

Discounted access to high-end brands is often achieved in the form of getting a smaller size, or grouping precious items with stuff nobody wants. A coveted Pat McGrath Labs lipstick, usually sold for $39 a pop, is available in Sephora's latest $45 Holiday Lip Set, but it's a smaller size and you get six other lipsticks you may or may not want with it.

"They bundle the good stuff with the undesirable stuff to make you try it," Osborne said.

So where are we now?

I often hear from readers who used to love Black Friday shopping that it's not what it used to be. The deals aren't as good, there's too much online or stores aren't as into it, they say.

It's true that by offering discounts online before, during and after Thanksgiving week, retail companies are simply responding to what they've determined consumers want. But my hardcore Black Friday readers do have a point. When you oversaturate the market with something, it loses its luster. A month of Black Friday or Cyber Monday means the days themselves aren't that special anymore.

"It gives people that feeling that when it's not urgent, maybe things will get cheaper closer to Christmas. Time is not going to run out on it. And I think, 'Is that the message you want to send?'" Osborne said. "They're trying to turn it into a monthlong celebration. Well, I try to do that with my birthday and it never worked."

I'm not sure what the long-term solution is. Osborne said it will probably take a huge, dominant retailer to make a declaration and say "this is what we're calling the holiday shopping season now, it's just one name." But the biggest retailer in the world right now is Amazon, and they're barely in the brick-and-mortar business, so who knows when that could be.

But while we as a society figure that out, can somebody in charge, for the love of all that is holy, please drop the word "cyber?"

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This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Is Cyber Monday still relevant in 2022?