By Christina Cheddar Berk, CNBC News Editor
NEW YORK (CNBC) -- Take door-buster specials, add early opening hours, and mix in a good measure of pent-up demand and you have a recipe for a strong start to the holiday shopping season.And retailers liked it so much, expect to see a version of it -- albeit smaller -- today, as a record number of shoppers are expected to go online to snag Cyber Monday deals, which at some retailers, began Sunday night. Black Friday sales are estimated to have risen 6.6% from the same time last year, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based company that tracks mall traffic. That estimated $11.4 billion in retail purchases represents the biggest dollar amount ever spent on that day. The National Retail Federation estimates 226 million shoppers visited stores and Web sites over the Black Friday weekend, up from 212 million last year.
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Cyber Monday has become more significant each year. Retailers embraced it and are offering bigger and bigger discounts online -- and more and more shoppers are coming for them. That is what is what makes the event, which initially began as marketing gimmick to promote online shopping, more important each year. According to Dealnews, last year Black Friday had only 5% more deals than Cyber Monday did, a drop of 5% from the prior year. And the deal gap should continue to close.
"This year an amazing 81% of major retailers sent at least one promotional email to their subscribers on Black Friday, making it the busiest promotional email day on record for the time being," said Chad White, research director for Responsys. "That's up from 69% last year. Black Friday was also preceded by the busiest Thanksgiving Day ever, with 75% of retailers sending email. That's up from 60% in 2010 and just 45% in 2009." "With email volume up 19% year-over-year last week, retailers are making email central to their marketing efforts this holiday season," he said. After seeing this kind of record email volume, White expects promotional email volume to easily set a new all-time record on Cyber Monday, which has been the busiest email-marketing day of the year for the past four consecutive years. One reason for this is the growth of the online business. According to research from Deloitte, online has become the No. 1 shopping destination, with almost half of consumers surveyed saying they will most likely shop for gifts online this holiday season -- an increase of 13% from last year. Still the main concern is what happens next? If you look at the shopping pattern, consumers were certainly being driven by the discounts, begging the question: Will consumer spending dry up when the big bargains of Thanksgiving weekend end? Consumers have been conditioned to expect big discounts over the holiday weekend. Trained to shop deals
"Retailers are really figuring out how to juice it for that entire weekend to get people in the stores and online," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group. "Basically, the consumers said give us the extra hours and deals and we'll come." But Cohen's worried that the strong Black Friday numbers may overstate the strength of the holiday season. "We groomed the consumer to wait until now to buy a product," he said.
Needham analyst Christine Chen said she expects that some of the higher spending came from shoppers who were buying items for themselves on the cheap. "We think the holidays will be back-end loaded as the event-driven shopper procrastinates and hopes for better deals as Christmas approaches," Chen said. Cohen agrees there was a lot of self-gifting. About 44% of the shoppers this weekend shopped for themselves, he said. That's up 12% over last year. Customer Growth Partners President Craig Johnson continues to expect that holiday retail sales will rise 6.5% from last year, which would be the best growth since 2006 and is higher than many forecasts, including the retail industry's own prediction. Johnson expects consumers will take a breather until the second week of December, which repeats a pattern that has been seen for many years. Johnson also is very optimistic about the growth of online and direct-to-consumer sales, which he expects will rise between 12% and 15% this year. In fact, Johnson expects ecommerce sales rose so sharply on Thanksgiving itself that that day may rival the Cyber Monday promotions. And the high-end and luxury consumers, who shun the Black Friday frenzy, will start their shopping this week, Johnson said. "As always, male luxury shoppers will wait until the last 10 days before Christmas to do their shopping -- particularly for jewelry." But even Johnson cautions, "One swallow does not a holiday season make. After the deepest recession in decades, the solid Black Friday weekend is welcome news -- but we're only in the second quarter of a long playoff game." -- Written by Christina Cheddar Berk, CNBC News Editor