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Cyber Monday? That's next month

After Thanksgiving dinner last week, perhaps some in your clan snuck off to organize sales circulars and plot their Black Friday shopping route. It is an American tradition, that Friday after Thanksgiving being the heaviest – and loopiest -- shopping day of the year. And with retailers like CompUSA opening their doors even before Thanksgiving was over -- at 9 p.m. on turkey night -- Black Friday is the real deal.

On the other hand, Cyber Monday – the Monday after Thanksgiving said to be the busiest online shopping day of the year -- is a myth. Procrastinators rule the day when it comes to online shopping, and the day when most of them click-shop for presents actually falls in the middle of December, just about the last day they can expect their gifts to arrive in time for Christmas.

At this time last year, I started to see story after story talking about Cyber Monday. As the tech reporter, I was embarrassed to admit I had no idea what people were talking about -- and talking about as if everybody knew what they were talking about.

The storyline was this: Just like the offline world, online holiday shoppers stampede right after digesting their Thanksgiving turkey. The first work day after Thanksgiving, that Monday, was declared Cyber Monday by the National Retail Federation. Somehow -- it's not clear where this began -- the day became synonymous with the busiest e-shopping day of the year. (The National Retail Federation says its only responsible for the name, not the claim that it is the busiest day. We incorrectly attributed the claim to the association in an earlier version of this column). Whoever did, it was repeated so often that many people assumed it must be true.

It was not and is not.

CyberSource Corp., based in Mountain View, Calif., helps processes electronic credit card payments for many major online retailers, including CompUSA, JC Penney and Blue Nile. The company says that one of every eight dollars spent online flows through its payment system, so it has a pretty good sense of e-shopping volume. And according to Cybersource, the busiest shopping day on the Web has occurred on a Monday in the middle of December for six straight years.

"This rule of thumb has held up for six years," he said. "It's always the Monday closest to Christmas with (at least) seven days left for shipping," said Doug Schwegman, director of market and customer intelligence for CyberSource.

Don’t get me wrong, Web shoppers have been busy. In fact, so many showed up this weekend that was temporarily knocked off-line. Nielsen/NetRatings, which measures Internet traffic, said about 12 percent more Web shoppers went online on Black Friday this year then last year, a modest but respectable increase. But trying to create a connection between Black Friday and Cyber Monday is just a marketing creation.

This year, Cybersource predicts Dec. 18 will be the magic day. That might not be good news for e-tailers, who will be jamming up UPS and FedEx trucks right up to the last minute.

And that's the reason you just might be tempted to sneak off to a few Web sites this week and get in some early shopping. Anxious retailers see the writing on the wall and are battling procrastination with discounts for early shopping, such as free shipping.

"During the last two years, merchants have made more efforts to encourage people to shop earlier," Schwegman said. "They don't want the logistics nightmare."

That work is paying off. While shopping does spike on all Mondays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the spike is only on the order of 10 percent to 20 percent over previous weeks. Many online shoppers are planners who like to finish gift-buying early, Schwegman said. Of all the purchases made between Nov. 1 and Christmas Eve, about half take place before Thanksgiving, and half after -- suggesting a rather even-keeled online shopping season.

Contrast that with Black Friday, when shoppers begin lining up the night before and generally behave like thirsty desert-walkers who've just spotted an oasis. There really is no equivalent stampede online.

It should not be a surprise that the busiest e-shopping day is basically the deadline day for Christmas gift buyers. But the fact that it always falls on a Monday is not quite as easily explained. Schwegman theorized that online shoppers spend their weekends outside and don't want to be working on their computers; or that they spend their weekend shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, and then go online at work on Monday to look for the best prices and execute their purchases.

I have a slightly more cynical view. Monday is easily the work week's most depressing day. Doesn't it make sense that e-tail therapy would also be heaviest on Mondays?

Now, time to get back to shopping … I mean work.