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Internet Merchants Get Into the Black Friday Act

Everybody loves a bargain, right? Well, what's true in flush times is even more so in lean years, and the holiday season of 2009 is certainly going to cap off one of those.

With the economy only beginning to lurch its way back from the precipice, some research firms have already offered preliminary analyses projecting a bearish holiday retail season, even for the online sector.

Despite reporting encouraging results from an early November e-commerce sales report, comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni today was quick to temper his optimism. "Nonetheless, online spending this holiday season will likely be tempered by the stark reality of 10-percent unemployment and less disposable income in many consumers’ wallets," Fulgoni said of the strong start.

So with online retailers looking to make hay in a cloud cover, this year's e-commerce season could be a bargain bonanza, if you know where to look. The importance of bargains is certainly not lost among the giants of the online retail sector.

On Tuesday, eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) unveiled a new "Deals" app for the iPhone that promises to funnel users a steady stream of bargain listings from the site.

This Friday, known in the retail world as "Black Friday," eBay is kicking off its "12 Days of Deals" promotion, featuring exclusive mystery deals the e-commerce giant has arranged with vendors. The promotion opens with the Samsung Netbook N120-12GBK and runs through Dec. 8.

In concert with the release of the new Deals app, eBay updated its regular iPhone app and redesigned its mobile Web page, which it expects to rake in more than $500 million in sales by the end of the year.

Not to be outdone, rival e-commerce titan Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has stocked its own Black Friday deals page with markdowns geared for the onset of the holiday shopping season.

Apple (NASDQ: AAPL) also has some markdowns in store for shoppers on Black Friday. Late Tuesday afternoon, the consumer electronics juggernaut posted this promotion online store, advertising a one-day shopping event for the day after Thanksgiving.

To help navigate through the blizzard of promotions and merchandise available on the Web, the search engines are getting in on the game. On Monday, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) rolled out some updates to its Product Search service, now offering a high-resolution gallery view and summaries of reviews to speed the research process.

Microsoft's Bing, which is working assiduously to lure Web users away from Google, is increasing the percentage it's offering to pay back to shoppers through its cash-back program.

Even though for many, online holiday shopping might begin with the biggest, best-known names on the Web, savvy bargain hunters are wont to neglect the long tail, and that long tail is becoming an increasingly social place.

"Customers are increasingly using a variety of social web platforms to connect with one another on a multitude of topics," said Shari Gunn, vice president of advertising and business development at Kaboodle.com, a social shopping hub. "In the biggest shopping season of the year, we're seeing shopping and product related activity/conversations pop up all over the place -- and in more types of places than ever before."

Gunn explained that the rise of sites like Kaboodle, as well as social media powerhouses like Facebook and Twitter, has carried the social side of shopping well beyond user-generated product reviews and created tremendous opportunities for brands to spread the word virally.

"The key shift in consumer behavior is that consumers now expect to be well-informed and expect to be able to find product information, brand information, deals and discounts," she told InternetNews.com.

In recent years, a bevy of sites have emerged that position themselves as hubs for Black Friday promotions. To name a few, these include BlackFriday.info, BlackFriday2009.com, BFAds.net and special Black Friday sections on Dealighted.com and GottaDeal.com.

These sites can be valuable resources for shoppers working out their Black Friday game plan, since they often offer previews of deals retailers were trying to keep mum but leaked.

In a sign that consumers are taking notice, research firm Experian Hitwise today reported an 87 percent spike in traffic to its category of Black Friday referral sites over the past week.

Those sites couple with the litany of online coupon hubs that have become a mainstay in the online retail sector. These include Coupons.com, CouponSherpa.com and RetailMeNot, whose Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotions were recently profiled by InternetNews.com.

"With the economy still slow and many Americans on a strict budget, retailers are going to be offering a lot of great deals this holiday season," said CouponSherpa co-founder Luke Knowles. "Black Friday is an ideal time to take advantage of deep discounts."

Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving so-named for the untold hours office workers log shopping online after the holiday break, figures to be an even bigger e-commerce extravaganza than Black Friday, according to marketing firm Responsys.

"Cyber Monday is well on its way to living up to its claim as the biggest online shopping day of the year," said Responsys Research Director Chad White, noting the glut of direct response e-mails retailers typically send out that day.

"This year, folks seem to be sending more of their offers even earlier than previous years," agreed Kaboodle's Gunn. "There is a higher volume this year of retailers offering 'sneak peaks' and 'VIP previews' of their Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals."

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