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Cyber Monday: How it's evolved and what 2021 may bring

Here’s how Cyber Monday became the most profitable day for online shopping in U.S. history.
Illustration of a a man bent over an old computer, a man with his head cut off by photo, holding an old computer and a hand holding an iPhone with sale text all over it
Cyber Monday 2020 was the biggest online shopping day in U.S. history with customers spending $10.8 billion dollars online.Getty Images

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Online shopping booming in the years leading up to 2005, when the National Retail Federation (NRF) 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 is guaranteed brick-and-mortar stores.

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“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 help figure that out and plan for the upcoming Cyber Monday shopping season, we consulted experts about what defines Cyber Monday — and where it came from.

Cyber Monday emerges

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.

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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 allowed them to access an 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, allowing them 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 because it offered a convenience and flexibility Black Friday did not. People could shop whenever they had time on Cyber Monday. In short, Cyber Monday provided an opportunity to shop quickly and from virtually anywhere.

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.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday: Blurred lines

While Black Friday and Cyber Monday were once distinct — one was for in-person shopping and the other for online shopping — they’ve recently bled into one another. Cullen said this is evident in how some people now only shop online during Black Friday instead of going to stores.

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“Shopping is shopping regardless of what channel it’s occurring on, which reflects a shift in consumer and retailer thinking,” Cullen said. “They’re now shopping across multiple channels, depending on what’s most convenient for them and their lifestyles.”

As we previously reported, Black Friday is getting longer each year as some retailers offer sales starting in early November or even late October. That’s put pressure on Cyber Monday sales to start earlier, too. Many direct-to-consumer brands and online-only retailers now host early Cyber Monday sales leading up to the shopping event itself.

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And 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 host Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales that highlight 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.

“We still use the terms ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday,’ but it’s evolved so far beyond that,” Cullen said.

Cyber Monday during Covid

Due to the pandemic, online shopping in general experienced a massive surge in 2020, so much so that large retailers like Amazon experienced shipping delays for months, even into 2021. This put Cyber Monday in a unique position, Kahn said. During a year when everyone’s been shopping online — often because they had no other choice — would Cyber Monday still be appealing?

The answer was a resounding “yes.” Cyber Monday 2020 was the biggest online shopping day in U.S. history, with customers spending $10.8 billion online, according to Adobe Analytics. Experts believe this is due to more brands and retailers offering online sales since many people were not comfortable shopping in-person during the pandemic. Some retailers closed their doors to shoppers on Thanksgiving Day, too, which is typically when many Black Friday sales start. This milestone came after another one in 2019 when NRF data showed that for the first time in history, Black Friday topped Cyber Monday as the busiest day for online shopping with 93.2 million shoppers compared to 83.3 million shoppers respectively.

One of the reasons Cyber Monday 2020 may have been so successful is because many businesses that relied on in-person shopping were forced to offer online shopping during stay-at-home orders in early 2020, according to Cullen. And many online-only brands and retailers invested in improving their e-commerce platforms, too.

“The retailers that really seem to be positioning themselves for success are those that are embracing both channels, rather than leaning on one or the other,” Cullen said.

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And despite Amazon hosting Prime Day in October for the first time ever in 2020, its Cyber Monday event saw strong sales, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses. According to the retailer, independent retailers selling on Amazon — nearly all of which are small- and medium-sized businesses — surpassed $4.8 billion in worldwide sales from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, an increase of over 60 percent from 2019. NBC News also reported that Etsy, a platform for small and independent businesses to sell their items, saw an 84 percent increase in sales during the first 8 hours of Cyber Monday alone.

Shopping on smartphones — and on social media — saw increases in 2020, too. Smartphones accounted for 41.1 percent of the weekend’s revenue, up 7.4 percent from 2019, and social media drove one out of 10 visits to retail websites during that time period — a 17 percent increase from 2019, according to Adobe Analytics. Cullen said this is further evidence to support the idea that “customers now prefer to shop across all devices all weekend long.”

What to expect during Cyber Monday 2021

Similar to 2020, experts expect Cyber Monday to be the biggest day for online shopping in 2021. Despite Americans across the country getting vaccinated for Covid, retailers and brands may once again have to limit in-person shopping on Black Friday as concerns about Covid variants and increasing cases nationwide loom — retailers like Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond have already announced that they’re once again closing their doors for in-person shopping on Thanksgiving this year. Thus, Cullen said e-commerce will continue to be a crucial tool for businesses to reach shoppers, both during the 2021 holiday shopping season and throughout the rest of the year.

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