Could the Internet help lift consumer spending this holiday season?

With

storm clouds

still gathering over the U.S. economy, online retailers are pulling out all the stops for Cyber Monday, which marks the start of the official online holiday shopping period.

Almost 84% of online retailers will have a special promotion for Cyber Monday, according to

National Retail Federation

(NRF) research, up from 72% last year, underlining nervousness about the state of consumer spending.

Despite an increasingly gloomy retail outlook, the Internet may offer some bright spots for the holiday, according to Youssef Squali, an analyst at

Jefferies & Company

.

"While consumers are shopping less, their reliance on online (search) for product education and competitive shopping is growing," he wrote, in a note released Wednesday. The analyst pointed to 20% growth in U.S. online search volumes during October as evidence that the Internet will prove crucial in the 2008 holiday season.

Cyber Monday, which is the first Monday after Thanksgiving weekend and Black Friday, has even become something of a misnomer this year as retailers attempt to get a jump on the competition.

Amazon's Black Friday Deals Page, for example, went live Tuesday, and

Best Buy

(BBY) - Get Report

launched the online version of its "Doorbuster" special on Thanksgiving, the day before its actual stores opened. Internet auction site eBay is running its own "Holiday Doorbusters" promotion for a total of 15 days, ending Dec. 8.

"Next week's e-commerce data for Black Friday and Cyber Monday will be critical for e-commerce names including eBay, Amazon, and ShutterFly," Squali said.

The NRF research reveals that almost a quarter of online retailers will offer free shipping on all purchases for Cyber Monday. A similar number will offer one-day sales, and just under 40% are expected to offer other deals, such as free engraving or special financing.

Online retailers clearly still have plenty of work to do. A survey by market research firm

ComScore

reported that Internet spending between Nov. 1- 23 was $8.2 billion this year, 4% less than the same period in 2007. ComScore also predicts that online retail spending in November and December will be flat compared to the same period last year.

Figures from other parts of the retail sector will do little to ease investors' concerns. Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are expected to grow just 1.2% and 2.4%, respectively, this year, compared with 8.3% and 21% in 2007, according to accounting firm BDO Seidman.

Even PC companies such as

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

,

Hewlett-Packard

(HPQ) - Get Report

, and

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

, are using the Thanksgiving weekend as the

launch-pad

for a slew of price cuts. Apple, for example, slashed prices on its 13-inch MacBooks as part of a one-day Black Friday event publicized on the Apple Store Website.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company, which traditionally keeps a

tight rein

on its MacBook prices, cut the cost of its entry-level white MacBook from $999 to $948, and its 2.4 GHz MacBook from $1,599 to $1,498.

Apple also announced Black Friday price cuts for iPods, iMacs, and accessories.