'Cyber Monday' Ain't No Christmas Myth

The first raw data on Internet usage yesterday indicate shoppers rode heavy on the net. But there's one important question outstanding: Were those shoppers also purchasers?

If ever you happen to be up to your neck or deeper in snow, you could say you didn't see any avalanche. Despite some early anecdotal indications that "Cyber Monday" either fizzled or was a non-event, nay-sayers awoke from a prematurely long Christmas nap to find some raw numbers that spoke otherwise: According to estimates from corporate Web services provider Akamai Technologies, North American Internet traffic yesterday to the 270 major retail sites tracked by the company was 19% higher than for the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2005, and global traffic was 14% higher.

A live graph updated every five minutes on Akamai's Web site tells the tale in undeniable fashion: Retail Web traffic accumulated among the company's list of 270 sites worldwide peaked at 3,538,454 total visitors per minute, at approximately 2:00 pm Eastern Time yesterday. The uptick of the curve had already exceeded Akamai's 2005 levels by 11:00 am ET.

How does this compare to "Black Friday?" Akamai saw global retail traffic peaking last Friday at 3,080,349 visitors per minute at mid-day - about 14.9% lower.

To try to help online shoppers find the deals they were looking for yesterday, the National Retail Federation established a special Web site, cybermonday.com, complete with extra online coupons and direct links to savings from 400 retail sites. Trouble was, the NRF told the Chicago Tribune, the site received four times as much traffic as the group had anticipated, forcing a temporary shutdown while its IT department added an extra server. Wal-Mart's Web site also experienced temporary crashes yesterday morning.

The outstanding question today is whether the surge of shoppers were actually spenders. Analysts speculated yesterday that the boom in shopping online could contribute to a bust in shopping offline, and that online shoppers are most likely hunting for bargains they can't find elsewhere, helping them to reduce holiday expenses rather than the other way around. One early indicator, some said, of the depths of these shoppers' budgets could be their confidence in the overall economy.

So today's release of Consumer Confidence Index numbers from the economic analysis firm The Conference Board sounded an early sour note. November's numbers unexpectedly declined to 102.9, from 105.1 the month before. An index value of 100 represents relative consumer confidence at the start of 1985, just prior to the outbreak of the Iran/Contra scandal. A 102.9 figure is still relatively high, though it's the fact of the decline, and by how much, that put a damper on early morning stocks trading on Tuesday, though numbers did rebound by early afternoon.

Whether Cyber Monday's standing as a phenomenon holds true throughout the year may actually depend, however, on whether successive shopping days this season actually generate more sales -- not just more traffic -- than yesterday. As Web research firm comScore reported last week, and other sites are repeating today, last year, it was around December 12 and 13 when retailers reported the highest sales for the season.

But if that pattern holds true this year, believers may argue that one reason is because Cyber Monday traffic -- with servers down and service outages -- may have slowed down the pace of sales the way fewer and slower checkout lines increase shopper frustration at department stores.

In any event, something definitely did happen yesterday which you can see for yourself on the charts. What matters now is how it impacted the economy.

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