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Culture Shift: How Technology Is Changing Black Friday

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"Nobody goes there any more; it's too crowded."

The beloved quip from baseball Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra sums up perfectly what I think about today, Black Friday.

Billed as the "busiest shopping day of the year" and the moment when retailers finally cross-over into the "black" and post a profit, Black Friday is not all that it is purported to be. For one thing, the day after Thanksgiving is more often not the biggest day for retailers.

This might not mean much if you're spending today looking for a parking spot at a local mall. But if you're reading this, you are not likely standing in a queue, hoping to get a modest discount on some merchandise that was readily available a few days ago. Instead, you're probably spending your day doing more pleasurable things.

Don't get me wrong: I love a good bargain as much as the next shopper. In fact, I once ferried a light bulb across India on a crowded train just to save a few rupees--less than a quarter dollar in the United States. But rising at dawn to stand in line at a store promising huge discounts on a few items that may or may not be legitimate deals? Not my idea of an ideal day off.

Maybe it's time to rethink Black Friday, which even retailers no longer view as the official beginning of the holiday shopping season. Rather than wait for Thanksgiving, many put out their Christmas merchandise and cut prices as soon as Halloween is over. Best Buy began running holiday ads on TV 11 days earlier than a year ago.

Shoppers, too, are changing their habits. Consider: While brick and mortar sales are expected to increase 3.2 percent this December, according to ShopperTrak, online shopping is expected to increase much more--as much as 5 times more, according to Deloitte LLP.

Then there's holiday travel, which has always been a bit of a tall tale, truth be told. The busiest travel day in America? It's not the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. According to the U.S. Travel Association, Fridays in the middle of summer are far busier. Statistically, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving doesn't rank among the top 25 busiest travel days.

So why do the myths about Black Friday and Travel Wednesday persist? A lot has to do with how engrained they are into our culture. For millions of Americans, queuing up at dawn to buy a new TV or taking a flight "over the river and through the woods to grandma's" are family traditions.

But they are being tested by Internet technology that truly is changing the way we view time and distance.

Thanks to ubiquitous Internet connectivity, for example, millions of Americans no longer have to race from work the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to catch a flight. Instead, they can travel when it suits them and work a day or so from their destination. Afterwards, they can avoid the crowds at the mall and navigate to walmart.com, target.com and jcpenny.com and do a little online shopping. These and other merchants are not only offering great deals this year, but free shipping as well.

Unquestionably, technology has already changed the way many of us spend our time during the holidays. In the near future, it will also change the way we celebrate them as well.

Imagine enjoying time with relatives located far away without submitting to the new TSA travel requirements or spending long hours in the car. This year, millions of Americans won't just imagine this--they will live it thanks to Skype, Apple iChat and my own company's Umi videoconferencing.

Thanks to these and other innovations, we can shop when we want, spend time with loved ones at our leisure and avoid the stress that crowds often create.

Do I think that Black Friday is going away anytime soon? No, not likely. But I do believe its role in commerce is evolving. For many, Black Friday no longer means shopping til you drop, but spending time with loved ones doing something together. In some ways, Black Friday has come to resemble the Fall Hunt--a tradition that once revolved around a specific activity but later became about so much more.

Here's hoping your holiday goes smoothing no matter how you spend it. As for me, I'm going to keep an eye on the numbers retailers report for weekend sales. Like Berra also said, "you can observe a lot by just watching."

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.