Cyber Monday horning in on Black Friday

Black Friday isn't what it used to be.

The traditional start of the holiday shopping season has lost some pizzazz in recent years thanks to the growth of e-commerce and the trend among big retailers to start promotions in early November.

Chris Christopher Jr., director of consumer economics at research firm IHS also estimates that about 10 million fewer people will get a paycheck this Black Friday and instead will be paid on what marketers are now calling "Cyber Monday," which follows the Thanksgiving day weekend and which this year falls on the first of the month.

"That's another downer for Black Friday," he said.

Retailers this year are sending mixed signals about their expectations for the vital holiday shopping period. Walmart (WMT), the world's largest retailer, expects challenging business conditions. A survey this week by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association found that a third of respondents said they plan to spend less during the holidays.

Other merchants, including department store chain Macy's (M), express optimism about the holidays, citing the strengthening economy. U.S. consumer confidence hit its highest level in more than seven years, according to the closely watched Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey. Lower gas prices are also boosting sentiment, as well as freeing up some spending money for shoppers.

IHS estimates that holiday retail sales will increase by 4.2 percent this year, surpassing last year's 3.1 percent gain. The National Retail Federation predicts a 4.1 percent increase. Holiday sales on average have risen 2.9 percent annually over the past 10 years

One factor driving this growth has been the surging popularity of online shopping. Custora, which provides shopper analytics to retailers, estimates that e-commerce orders in the first three weeks of November were up more than 15 percent over the same period last year.

"You are going to see heavy, heavy promotion over the weekend," said Custora CEO Corey Pierson. "Times are still tight for many consumers. The shopping market is more and more competitive."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.