The biggest online shopping day of the year keeps getting bigger.
In 2016, Cyber Monday sales hit $3.45 billion, per Fortune. That was more than enough to make the Monday after Thanksgiving the United States’ biggest e-commerce day ever. Statistically speaking, it’s likely that you’ve purchased something online on Cyber Mondays past, even if it’s not your holiday shopping day of choice.
Cyber Monday hasn’t been around quite as long as Black Friday, the official kickoff of the holiday shopping season. But it’s already made quite a name for itself. Read on to learn about the history of Cyber Monday, what Cyber Monday and similar days are like around the world, and whether Cyber Monday and Black Friday are worth distinguishing between anymore.
Pro Tip: Check out our Cyber Monday shopping guide, updated every year with the best deals of the season from the country’s top retailers. If you’re not averse to hitting the stores on the day after Thanksgiving, check out our Black Friday shopping guide too.
History of Cyber Monday
When and where did Cyber Monday become a great day to save on holiday gift shopping? Here’s how it fits into the end-of-year holiday shopping season.
Cyber Monday’s Organic Origins
The Monday after Thanksgiving has been a popular online shopping day since the turn of the 21st century. Before the smartphone era, consumers would use the first workday after the long Thanksgiving weekend to check their favorite retailers’ websites for deals they might have missed at in-person Black Friday sales or more leisurely Saturday-Sunday trips to the mall.
In 2005, the National Retail Federation (through its commercial portal, Shop.org) decided to give the day a name: Cyber Monday, coined (per Fast Company) by a young NRF public relations executive named Ellen Davis. In a hopelessly quaint New York Times article, Michael Barbaro recorded NRF’s expectation that the first-ever Cyber Monday would be the biggest online shopping day of the holiday season. In fact, it wasn’t: That honor fell to December 12, 2005, for reasons that will be forever lost to history. But the term stuck, and Cyber Monday was born.
One-Stop Shopping at CyberMonday.com
NRF capitalized on Davis’s flash of marketing brilliance by launching a one-stop shopping site with an obvious name: CyberMonday.com.
At first, CyberMonday.com was pretty much the only place to find Cyber Monday deals – a clearinghouse of sorts for post-Thanksgiving discounts and deals. Today, it’s one of many affiliate-driven e-commerce sites offering win-win deals for consumers and sellers.
According to NRF, CyberMonday.com has notched more than $69 billion in sales since 2005. Its signature, much-replicated innovation was the hourly deal: In 2016, shoppers could snag drastic discounts from merchants as diverse as Apple, Neiman Marcus, Bose, Kohl’s, Walmart, All Saints, Walgreens, Best Buy, and The Wall Street Journal (really).
These days, CyberMonday.com is indistinguishable from other multi-brand e-commerce portals. Its tagline, “365 Days of Deals,” says all you need to know.
Jumping on the Bandwagon: Cyber Monday Goes Big
NRF couldn’t keep Cyber Monday under wraps forever. Almost immediately, major online retailers began offering their own Cyber Monday deals unconnected to CyberMonday.com.
Though Cyber Monday wasn’t initially the biggest online shopping day of the year, NRF’s intuition wasn’t wrong: Consumers really did want to shop big on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Retailers dutifully played up the day as a natural extension of an already-popular shopping weekend and timed their best promotions accordingly.
Early e-commerce innovations, like Gap’s virtual dressing room, heightened retailers’ and consumers’ collective sense of possibility. So did consumers’ apparent willingness to buy unconventional items online: Barbaro’s 2005 article noted that sales of sports and fitness equipment grew by 49% and furniture by 34% from 2004 to 2005, “suggesting that consumers are becoming more comfortable with the idea of buying a couch or treadmill online.”
Cyber Monday Sales: Steady Growth in Any Economy
In the retail industry, Cyber Monday is about as close as it comes to a slam dunk. ComScore began tracking Cyber Monday sales in 2006, when shoppers spent $608 million online. Since then, the holiday has seen double-digit sales increases almost every year. The sole exception was 2009, as recession-weary U.S. consumers tightened their belts. Cyber Monday 2009 sales grew a mere 5% over 2008.
Still, 2009 was arguably the exception that proved the rule. The fact that Cyber Monday sales grew 5% – well above the rate of inflation, which was virtually nil at the time – during the worst economic recession in living memory is a convincing testament to the inexorable pull of e-commerce.
Cyber Monday’s recent growth has been particularly impressive. In 2014, ComScore reported that Cyber Monday desktop sales surpassed $2 billion for the first time ever. Total Cyber Monday sales, including mobile, were hundreds of millions of dollars higher. And sales jumped 12% in each of the two subsequent years. Considering the higher baseline, that’s noteworthy: 12% of $2 billion is a lot more than 20% of $608 million.
Today: Every Day Is Cyber Monday
Cyber Monday remains the busiest e-commerce day of the holiday shopping season, but its outsize public image far exceeds its actual impact on overall holiday sales. After all, it’s only one day. When Thanksgiving falls early, the holiday shopping season has more than 30 days just like it.
Take off your shopper’s hat for a moment. Set aside the annoying pop-up ads, the incessant emails, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em hourly deals. Seriously, just for a moment. If you can.
Cyber Monday is the story of retail’s jarring and momentous leap into the digital age.
Two decades ago, within living memory of most people alive today, retail was rooted firmly in the tangible world of display racks, fitting rooms, sales clerks, checkout lines, and layaway counters. As we get set to enter the third decade of the 21st century, retail’s center of gravity is definitively digital. Brick-and-mortar stores haven’t disappeared completely, but they’re no longer the sole, or even primary, focus.
Modern retail is omnichannel: a multipolar landscape of large-format brick-and-mortar stores, specialty outlets, warehouse clubs, subscription services, and online-only platforms, all knitted together by powerful e-commerce tools that empower customers to shop, compare, and buy with a few clicks and swipes.
As all-digital platforms like Amazon (CNBC reports on its Whole Foods merger) embrace the irreplaceable in-store shopping experience, physical retailers like Target (cf. its takeover of Techstars Retail) are investing huge sums in e-commerce innovation. Those that aren’t innovating are either already out of business or knocking on death’s door.
So, this Cyber Monday, pause for a moment as you dash from deal to deal and acknowledge how incredible what you’re doing would seem to a time traveler from the relatively recent past.
Cyber Monday (and Similar E-Commerce Events) Around the World
The United States might be the only country in the world that celebrates Thanksgiving (or an equivalent giving-of-thanks holiday) on the fourth Thursday of November. But it’s not the only country in the world to host a blowout online shopping sale around that time. Here’s a look at how some other countries handle Cyber Monday, plus some analogous holidays inspired by the U.S. version:
- Canada: In the 2000s and early 2010s, a strong Canadian dollar pushed frugal north-of-the-border consumers into the arms of American retailers offering irresistible Black Friday deals. But why endure the cross-border drive and potential Customs headaches when you can get similar deals (less shipping) from the comfort of your living room? By 2010, some Canadian retailers were offering Cyber Monday deals of their own, and the holiday grew from there – despite the fact that Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving six to seven weeks before the United States.
- United Kingdom: U.K. retailers began advertising Cyber Monday deals in 2009 on the same day as the U.S. holiday. It’s now a major online shopping day in the U.K., and an unofficial start to the holiday shopping season there.
- Germany: As early as 2010, Amazon’s German subsidiary (Amazon.de) advertised Cyber Monday sales on the same day as U.S. Cyber Monday. The holiday grew over the years into an eight-day Cyber Week that runs from the Monday before U.S. Thanksgiving through U.S. Cyber Monday.
- Netherlands: The Netherlands’ Cyber Monday equivalent is the last Monday before the country’s Sinterklaas holiday, which falls on December 5th. That means it’s either the same day as U.S. Cyber Monday or one week after, depending on the calendar. It’s usually the most popular day of the Netherlands’ holiday shopping season.
- India: In 2012, Google India launched the Great Online Shopping Festival (GOSF), a manufactured online shopping event conceived to jump-start India’s underdeveloped online shopping ecosystem. GOSF fell on December 12th each year, two to three weeks after U.S. Cyber Monday. It grew rapidly, from fewer than 100 retailers in 2012 to 550 in 2014, including some of India’s biggest sellers. But it wasn’t to last: In 2015, per The Economic Times, Google India discontinued the event. The occasion was bittersweet: Basically, Google India reasoned that India’s e-commerce scene had matured so well between 2012 and 2015 that an Astroturfed online shopping holiday was no longer necessary.
- Australia: Australia’s Cyber Monday equivalent, first run in 2012, is Click Frenzy. Held on the third Tuesday of each November, it’s the unofficial kickoff for the country’s holiday shopping season. Its Travel Frenzy offshoot, a travel-only deal day first run in 2016, happens each August.
- China: The granddaddy of single-day e-commerce blowouts belongs to Singles Day, held each year on November 11. Originally conceived as a celebration of singledom for lonely Chinese youngsters, Singles Day has grown into the world’s largest shopping holiday, thanks largely to the immense influence of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. In 2016, per CNBC, Alibaba reported $17.8 billion in Singles Day sales – an eye-popping 32% increase over 2015, and roughly five times Cyber Monday’s haul that year.
Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday
According to Bloomberg, Cyber Monday’s dominance is in danger of eclipse by Black Friday, the original holiday shopping season blowout day. On Black Friday 2016, online sales topped $3.34 billion, thanks to deep discounts from virtually all major American retailers.
Are Cyber Monday and Black Friday engaged in an e-commerce arms race? Hardly. Both days chase the same broad pool of consumers: deal-hunters looking for a head start on their holiday shopping.
What’s more, the first week of the holiday shopping season seems to get longer every year. Some retailers start so-called Black Friday deals as early as the Monday before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving itself is now a popular shopping holiday in its own right, though not all retailers are on board with that trend.
And Thanksgiving weekend’s two core days, Small Business Saturday and as-yet-nameless Sunday, attract shoppers in droves with one-day and carryover deals. Industry watchers dub the five-day Thanksgiving-Cyber Monday corridor “Cyber Five,” underlining each day’s commercial import.
So, is it time to chuck Black Friday and Cyber Monday in favor of a more inclusive moniker – Holiday Shopping Kickoff Week, perhaps?
Not quite yet. Setting aside the others for a moment, there’s still enough to distinguish between the period’s two tentpole shopping days. The major differences between Black Friday and Cyber Monday include:
- Cyber Monday Is Terrible for Productivity. Since the Monday after Thanksgiving is a workday for most 9-to-5ers, it’s no surprise that tens of millions of Americans spend at least part of that day using their work computers to find the hottest deals. According to a 2016 Harris Poll survey commissioned by CareerBuilder, 53% of respondents said they’d look for Cyber Monday deals while at work, up 3% from the previous year. Though many employers frown upon online shopping at the office, there’s only so much they can do to stop determined deal-seekers, especially on the West Coast: Many retailers wrap up their deals by early evening Eastern Time. CareerBuilder didn’t calculate the precise productivity loss attributable to Cyber Monday, but 43% of office-bound Cyber Monday shoppers said they’d spend at least an hour shopping at work – at least one-eighth of an eight-hour workday.
- Black Friday Is More Mobile. Black Friday is marginally more mobile-friendly than Cyber Monday. According to Marketing Land, 36% of total Black Friday revenues and 38% of total sales came from mobile traffic sources in 2016. Some 55% of all Black Friday e-commerce traffic came from mobile sources, mostly smartphones. By contrast, a National Retail Federation survey found that just 23% of Cyber Monday 2016 shoppers planned to shop from their mobile phones, about even with the previous year.
- Black Friday Is Great for Electronics Deals. Virtually every major retailer participates in both events, but Black Friday and Cyber Monday have distinct focuses. For its part, Black Friday is a great day to stock up on heavily discounted electronics, including TVs, mobile devices, PCs and PC equivalents, AV devices, home office equipment, and the like. It’s not the absolute best time to shop for electronics, however. That’s January, when retailers need to offload aging stock that didn’t sell during the holiday season.
- Cyber Monday Is Great for Home Goods and Soft Goods. Counterintuitively, Cyber Monday is a better fit for clothing and home goods, such as furnishings and fixtures. If you’re buying clothing on Cyber Monday, make sure your retailer has a generous return policy.
- Black Friday Is More Stressful. Though stress is subjective, veteran shoppers who’ve experienced Black Friday firsthand know how crazy the day can get. Long lines in the wee hours, thick crowds in stores, congested parking lots, heavy traffic on adjacent roads, arguments and fights over limited-quantity merchandise, door-buster stampedes: These perils, and many others, await brick-and-mortar Black Friday shoppers. By contrast, Cyber Monday is a breeze: The biggest inconveniences you’re likely to face are an earlier-than-usual wake-up and a longer-than-usual load time at busy shopping sites.
- Cyber Monday Is Prone to Scams. Only the biggest, flashiest, and most disruptive retail data security incidents make headlines. For every Target or Home Depot data breach that spews tens of millions of individuals’ personal and financial data out into the ether, there are hundreds or thousands of smaller-scale cyber-thefts. As the original online shopping holiday, Cyber Monday is particularly prone to e-commerce scams: phishing emails advertising too-good-to-be-true deals, fake sites that exist solely to steal credit card numbers, fly-by-night sellers that take your money and disappear, phony or counterfeit products sold under false pretenses, and more. Know how to protect yourself from these risks every day, not just Cyber Monday.
Pro Tip: Overwhelmed by all the Cyber Monday deals? Check out our list of Cyber Monday shopping tips to get the best deals, fast.
Cyber Monday 2016’s all-time e-commerce record isn’t likely to stand for long.
Cyber Monday sales have increased almost without interruption since the dawn of e-commerce. As e-commerce platforms expand and consumers become more comfortable buying a wider range of products and services online, it’s now crystal clear that the future of retail is digital. That’s great news for e-commerce giants like Amazon and eBay, as well as legacy retailers that made their names in brick-and-mortar and then successfully transitioned to cyberspace.
It’s great news for shoppers too. What’s your Cyber Monday routine?