Will Cyber Monday become a Black Friday dud?

After a disappointing Thanksgiving weekend, all eyes in retail are watching sales numbers today, Cyber Monday. Executives and analysts hope that a big surge in purchases will help make up for the slower Black Friday and weekend activity.="http:>

But even if consumers hit their keyboards and touchscreens hard today, it's unclear whether established patterns of buying will survive over the long run. Changing habits, changes by stores and online sites, and a continued weak economy may have altered retail's rules for good.

Is Black Friday losing its appeal?

The official first weekend in holiday shopping, an important marker for retailers, was off for at least second year in a row, according to a number of sources. Research firm ShopperTrak said that Black Friday gross sales were down by 7 percent.

According to the National Retail Federation, shopper traffic from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday was down by 5.2 percent over last year; the organization said it expected spending to be down by more than 11 percent for the past holiday weekend.

One reason the NRF gave for the drop was early promotions. Many major retailers have begun starting their promotions earlier.

As CBS News business analyst Jill Schlesinger said, "We saw Walmart, the world's largest retailer, kick things off a week before Black Friday."

Another example was Amazon.com, which advertised a week of sales in advance of Cyber Monday. The earlier availability of promotions both in stores and online meant that consumers did not have to wait for the weekend to take advantage of specials. In fact, by some tallies, Thanksgiving Day sports better and more shopping deals than Black Friday. And, according to ShopperTrak, shopping on Thanksgiving was up 23.6 percent to $3.19 billion.

Retailers have advanced the start dates of specials because of the theory that they all compete for a fixed pool of consumer money and that people tend to spend much of their budget for holiday buying early on. If they don't attract that spending early, they run the risk of not getting it at all.

Online in general, and Cyber Monday specifically, still holds some hope for retailers. According to the NRF, holiday shoppers spent almost 42 percent of their budget online. But that could well be only a shift from traditional stores to online venues. And as the virtual specials start earlier and earlier, eventually Cyber Monday could see the same type of sales decline as Black Friday has seen. In fact, according to an NRF survey, there will be 3.5 percent fewer people making online purchases today than last year.

The real question will eventually be what total sales were. Hopefully the answer won't make retail executives say, "Bah, humbug!"