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Cyber Monday kicks off holiday shopping online

Retailers slash prices and offer Web-only promotions to lure buyers to their sites.

December 02, 2008|Andrea Chang | Chang is a Times staff writer.

It may have been Monday, but the Thanksgiving shopping marathon continued as virtual crowds swarmed online merchants in search of Web-only specials, discounts and free shipping.

Many retailers were counting on a strong Cyber Monday -- which marks the start of the online holiday shopping season -- after healthy in-store sales and foot traffic on Black Friday dropped off as the weekend progressed.

So, like their in-store counterparts, Web merchants took to slashing prices and offering attractive deals such as set amounts off purchases and free gifts at checkout.

Specials included 25% off watches at Kmart.com and up to 60% off toys and games at KBtoys.com. Sears.com was offering free shipping on orders of $49 or more and up to 50% off tools.

"I don't think there's any doubt that the promotions being offered online are significantly more aggressive than we've seen in the past," said Andrew Lipsman, senior analyst at comScore Inc., which tracks online spending. "It's almost really standard to offer free shipping at this point. They're doing what they need to do."

Lipsman said although Cyber Monday is not the busiest online shopping day of the holiday season -- that day usually occurs in mid-December -- it "represents the first significant spike in online spending."

Many deals were good for one day only, though others will last through the week.

Also on Monday, new retail sales figures emerged that gave a better picture of how the nation's brick-and-mortar stores performed over the extended Thanksgiving weekend.

According to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., combined sales on Friday and Saturday rose 1.9% compared with last year, for a total of $16.6 billion. But the tracking firm, which monitors activity at more than 50,000 stores, said sales trailed off sharply Saturday, when they fell 0.8% from a year earlier.

Saturday spending totaled $6 billion, roughly 43% less than Friday's $10.6 billion in sales -- a troubling number that suggested many consumers stayed home after the jaw-dropping Black Friday deals ended.

Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, called Saturday's sluggish retail activity "a spending hangover" and predicted that sales would continue to slow for the rest of the week. The firm's complete Black Friday weekend sales and traffic information will be released Wednesday.

Analysts are increasingly concerned that the holiday shopping season will be a disaster as consumers drastically cut their holiday budgets while retailers desperately lower prices, potentially hurting profits.

Another problem is a shortened shopping season -- there are 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year compared with last year's 32.

Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, said it came down to "too many stores chasing too few shoppers."

"We believe this will be the worst holiday sales decline in 25 years, and very possibly 35 years," he said. "There's no way this is going to pencil out profitably for retailers on the bottom line."

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andrea.chang@latimes.com

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