When the term Cyber Monday was coined years ago, a lot of people only had high-speed Internet access at work. While they would go to the mall on Black Friday and over the weekend, they would wait until Monday to begin their online shopping.
Retail sales continue to sag in this economy. One bright spot, however: E-commerce sales continue to rise.
Online shopping is the fastest growing and arguably the healthiest segment of the retail industry. Given its ubiquity, it's hard to image that it didn't exist before the mid-1990s. How good is your e-commerce acumen? Try our short quiz.
When did Amazon.com sell its first book, and what was it?
In July 1995, Amazon sold its first book: Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter.
Are there any mainstream products that Amazon doesn't sell?
Amazon does not sell automobiles, though it does sell auto parts.
How many active customers does Amazon have?
About 98 million, according to the company.
How much will be spent buying things online in 2009?
About $150 billion to $160 billion, according to Forrester Research.
What portion of retail sales are made online?
Less than 7 percent, according to Forrester.
How big will online retail be in 20 years?
Forrester estimates that, under the most optimistic scenario, it will be a maximum of 15 percent to 20 percent.
Name at least one pitfall of shopping online?
Deborah Mitchell of the University of Wisconsin School of Business says it's harder than you think to control impulse buying online. And, she says, your feet don't get tired, so you're likely to shop longer and buy more stuff you don't need.
It's almost impossible to talk about online shopping without talking about Amazon.com — the world's largest online retailer. And this time of year, the company's gift-wrappers are extremely busy.
"Scan the items, measure it up, make sure it's evened out," says Jessica Carmichael.
Like other experienced speed-wrappers at shipping centers across the country, Carmichael turns out fully dressed packages in less than two minutes.
"Put the ribbon on, get your gift card, get your envelope, put it back on the cart," Carmichael says.
The facility where Carmichael works, just outside Phoenix, is huge — about the size of 14 football fields, filled with books, DVDs, toys and lots of other stuff. That site is one of more than 20 U.S. facilities that Amazon calls fulfillment centers.
Cyber Monday is a huge online shopping day, but not the biggest — that likely will be in mid-December.
Amazon Vice President Craig Berman says that on the busiest day last year, the company shipped 5.6 million items.
"It's a really big number," says Berman. "Now, that's worldwide at all our fulfillment centers, but that shows a lot of customers were getting their shopping done online."
Amazon alone boasts nearly 100 million active buyers. And overall online sales have been growing steadily. This year, they are expected to top $150 billion.
And what are shoppers buying? Amazon's answers may surprise you.
"Susan Boyle is still the No. 1 best-selling CD right now," Berman says.
Boyle won instant fame earlier this year after appearing on the TV show Britain's Got Talent.
And what else does Berman see on the current best-seller list?
"One of the hottest toys is Zhu Zhu pet hamsters — they are little soft hamsters, and each has a name, and right now Mr. Squiggles is the third best-selling item in our toy store."
The allure of shopping for Mr. Squiggles, or anything else online, is well-known. It's convenient, the selection and price comparisons are practically limitless; and the prices are often the best around.
Online shopping has come a long way since Amazon burst on the scene in the mid-1990s.
Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester Research reminds us that back then, the Internet was not widely used in commerce.
"The types of transactions that were conducted on the commercial Internet back then were things like porn or gambling. So for Amazon to come along and say, we can actually sell you a book or a CD — that was actually a pretty astounding proposition."
What's more, she says, Amazon got consumers comfortable with providing their credit card information online.
Today, online marketers have reams of information about you. They use that, along with neuromarketing techniques developed from brain research, to personalize your shopping experience and make it more tantalizing.
Deborah Mitchell of the University of Wisconsin School of Business says impulse buying and emotional buying are often more common online than off.
"Consumers believe, they know [that] marketers are trying to influence them in the brick-and-mortar stores, but there is this feeling among many consumers that when they are online, they have a lot more control than they really do."
Her advice: Before you go online, make a shopping list and set a time limit.
It just might keep you from overspending online this holiday season.