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Cyber Monday: How it's evolved and what 2022 may bring

Experts explain how e-commerce came to dominate the holiday shopping season, and why Cyber Monday is the most profitable day for online shopping every year.
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The National Retail Federation first coined the term “Cyber Monday” in 2005 after it observed a spike in online traffic and revenue the Monday following Thanksgiving years prior.Getty Images

Online shopping was booming in the years leading up to 2005, when the National Retail Federation (NRF) first coined the term “Cyber Monday.”

Amazon was founded in 1994, eBay launched in 1995 and Walmart debuted its website in 2000. Shoppers quickly grew accustomed to adding items to a virtual shopping cart rather than a physical one. And yet, when Black Friday came around every year, e-commerce sellers felt left out of the revenue boost that was guaranteed for brick-and-mortar stores.

“With the growth of online shopping, online-only players like Amazon were looking for a way to capitalize on Thanksgiving weekend sales,” said Katherine Cullen, the NRF’s senior director of industry and consumer insights. “The Monday after Thanksgiving became dedicated to online sales, differentiating it from Black Friday.”

Since 2005, the first “official” Cyber Monday, the event has evolved and grown into what is historically the biggest day for online shopping sales every year. But as the proportion of Americans who shop online increases — and retailers continue to offer Black Friday deals online as well as in stores — how do we draw the line between where Black Friday stops and Cyber Monday begins? To get a better sense of that and help you plan for the upcoming Cyber Monday shopping season, we consulted experts about what defines the event and how it came to be.

Looking back at Cyber Mondays of years past

No event set Cyber Monday up for record-breaking success in a single year like the Covid-19 pandemic did in 2020. Because so many businesses were forced to close their doors for in-store shopping due to the coronavirus, online shopping in general experienced a massive surge. People had no other way to get certain products, and many were concerned that in-person shopping could put them at risk of contracting Covid.

This online shopping surge directly impacted Cyber Monday. Data from Adobe Analytics shows that customers spent $10.8 billion online during Cyber Monday 2020, which to this day is the biggest online shopping day in U.S. history. Experts attribute this milestone in part to retailers pushing online sales more than ever before to avoid the typical crowds they see in stores. Select retailers even closed for in-store shopping on Thanksgiving Day in 2020, which is when many Black Friday sales start. Some, like Walmart and Target, also reformatted their events to be multi-week sales online and in-stores throughout November.

Even before the pandemic, however, there were signs that e-commerce was dominating the retail market during the holiday shopping season — even on Black Friday, which is traditionally thought of as an in-person shopping event. In 2019, NRF data showed that for the first time in history, Black Friday topped Cyber Monday as the busiest day that year for online shopping, with 93.2 million shoppers compared to 83.3 million shoppers respectively. We saw this happen again in 2020 and 2021, solidifying that our original notions of one day dedicated to in-person shopping and another dedicated to online shopping were obsolete. The five day period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday — and the weeks leading up to it — is an all-around shopping frenzy, whether it’s online, in-stores or both.

Retailers continued to prioritize online sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2021, and they started sales earlier than in 2020 to give shoppers more time to snag deals. This strategy resulted in 2021 holiday sales growing 14.1% to a record $886.7 billion, according to NRF, whose holiday total includes sales for Nov. 1 through Dec. 31.

And although Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2021 saw billions of dollars in online revenue — $8.9 billion and $10.7 billion, respectively, according to Adobe — the events did not see the kind of exponential growth they did in 2020. In fact, online revenue on Black Friday decreased by 1.12% year over year, Adobe says, and online revenue on Cyber Monday dropped by 1.4% year-over-year, falling for the first time ever. Still, the overall 2021 holiday shopping season broke records. Experts said this means shoppers are spreading out their spending over a few months, rather than concentrating purchases around specific days.

What to expect during Cyber Monday 2022

As shoppers prepare to shop this holiday season, inflation is weighing heavily on their minds. A recent RetailMeNot survey showed that roughly half of shoppers say they’ll be buying fewer items this year due to inflation, and that consumers plan to spend 8% less than they did last year. The NRF expects holiday sales during November and December to rise between 6% and 8% compared to last year — this, when the effect of inflation is factored in, marks an overall decline.

So what does this mean for Cyber Monday?

“With consumers’ sentiment about the economy at a historical low with concerns about inflation, they’re looking for savings and seeking value where they can find it,” said said McKinsey & Company’s Kelsey Robinson, senior partner who focuses on marketing strategies, and Tamara Charm, partner who analyzes consumer insight and sentiment, in a joint statement. “However, even given this negative overall economic sentiment, people in the US are more excited for the holidays and are eager to spend and splurge.”

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are typically days that people get a lot of their holiday shopping done, and experts say deals may be deeper in 2022 compared to years’ past — since many brands and retailers have excess inventory and need to get rid of stock before 2023. These two factors are setting Black Friday and Cyber Monday up well in 2022, although the country’s overall economic circumstances may mean total sales dip year-over-year.

Also, shopping early is also top of mind for people this year — half of shoppers plan to get started before Thanksgiving, according to RetailMeNot’s surveys. Many retailers already kicked off their Black Friday and Cyber Monday events, like Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and Target. Starting these sales so early gives shoppers a chance to divy up purchases instead of buying items using only one paycheck, Cullen said, thus encouraging them to shop.

Finally, experts expect online shopping to dominate this year compared to in-store shopping, continuing the trend from years past. However, we may see more people return to stores in 2022 as they become increasingly comfortable traveling and spending time in larger groups.

How Cyber Monday emerged

Cyber Monday takes place the Monday after Thanksgiving, two days after Black Friday. The NRF coined the name “Cyber Monday” in 2005, introducing it in a press release that described a new trend the group began noticing a few years prior: Without fail, online revenue and traffic spiked the Monday following Thanksgiving. Soon after, media outlets and retailers started using the term, too.

Like Black Friday, Cyber Monday was a response to consumer behavior, explained Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. When people returned to work on Monday after being home for the holiday weekend, they once again had access to computers and the internet — in the ‘90s and early 2000s, not everyone owned a computer or kept one at home like we do today. Kahn said being back at work allowed shoppers to browse online-only retailers for deals, which gave them access to a new assortment of products they may not have found in stores. Retailers with an online presence in addition to their storefronts also hosted Cyber Monday sales, giving them the opportunity to reach a larger audience than just those who shopped in-person on Black Friday.

Beyond a new and more diverse assortment of deals, Kahn said Cyber Monday was attractive to shoppers because it offered a convenience and flexibility Black Friday did not. People could shop whenever they had time on Cyber Monday. In short, you could score deals quickly and from virtually anywhere on Cyber Monday, which became part of the sale event’s novelty.

Since we now have access to the internet almost all the time on our phones, tablets, laptops, watches and smart home devices, the original rationale behind Cyber Monday is “a bit archaic,” Kahn said. But its legacy remains: Cyber Monday established a new type of holiday sale — one that occurred exclusively online — and stretched out the timeline of the shopping weekend.

The blurred line between Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Black Friday and Cyber Monday were once distinct events — one was for in-person shopping and the other for online shopping. But they’ve recently bled into one another. Black Friday is getting longer each year as some retailers offer sales starting in early November or even October. And Black Friday has been outpacing Cyber Monday in terms of number of online shoppers, although Cyber Monday historically grosses more revenue.

“We still use the terms ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday,’ but it’s evolved so far beyond that,” Cullen said. “Shopping is shopping regardless of what channel it’s occurring on, which reflects a shift in consumer and retailer thinking. They’re now shopping across multiple channels, depending on what’s most convenient for them and their lifestyles.”

This change in consumer and retailer thinking puts pressure on Cyber Monday sales to start earlier. Shoppers have come to expect early deals, so many direct-to-consumer brands and online-only retailers start their Cyber Monday sales months or weeks in advance of the shopping event itself.

But Cyber Monday sales don’t always end on Cyber Monday, which extends the shopping holiday on the backend, too. Cyber Monday often turns into Cyber Week — many brands and retailers offer online-only sales that last the entire week after Thanksgiving.

Some businesses with both an online presence and brick-and-mortar stores differentiate between Black Friday and Cyber Monday by highlighting different deals. Others simply change the name of their sale from “Black Friday'' to “Cyber Monday” as the week goes by without offering new deals. That’s led some retail experts to see Cyber Monday as a continuation of Black Friday rather than as its own unique shopping event. Every year, Black Friday and Cyber Monday become increasingly indistinguishable from each other, and the idea of Black November — the term experts use to describe the month-long promotions leading up to the sale events — becomes further solidified.

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Barbara Kahn is a professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Kelsey Robinson is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company who focuses on marketing strategies.
  • Tamara Charm is a partner at McKinsey & Company who analyzes consumer insight and sentiment.
  • Katherine Cullen is the senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation.

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