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Load ’em up.

The dubious history of Cyber Monday, on its 10th birthday

By Zachary M. Seward

Cyber Monday, the celebration of online shopping that evokes crass commercialism and dial-up internet, turns 10 years old today.

Like all great American traditions, it began with a press release.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2005, the National Retail Federation’s Shop.org put out a notice titled, ”‘Cyber Monday’ Quickly Becoming One of the Biggest Online Shopping Days of the Year.” It explained:

Experts believe that an increase in web traffic could stem from the fact that consumers may have faster or more secure Internet connections at work and choose to shop there, or that they were unable to finish all of their shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend. Analysts also expect many consumers to shop on Cyber Monday from home after work or when their children are sleeping. Regardless of the reason or the time of day, consumers are expected to head online in droves on Cyber Monday, many during work hours.

Journalists often seek quotes and data from organizations like the National Retail Federation—even though, as a representative of major retailers, it has a vested interest in stories that portray mass shopping as a normal activity.

The New York Times, in one of the first media mentions of Cyber Monday, gave the event its blessing: “Though it sounds like slick marketing, Cyber Monday, it turns out, is a legitimate trend. According to Shop.org, a trade group, 77 percent of online retailers reported a substantial sales increase on the Monday after Thanksgiving last year.” That shaky statistic—an increase compared to what?—was in the first paragraph of the NRF’s press release.

It has never been clear if Cyber Monday is an unusually popular day for shopping on the internet. Mondays, in general, tend to be busy days for online retailers, though that has diminished somewhat as people increasingly use their phones to shop. But the Monday after Thanksgiving never ranks among the busiest online shopping days of the year in the US. Many days in December are more popular, as deadlines approach for gifts to arrive before Christmas.

And the idea that Americans have more reliable internet connections at work, which the NRF cited to explain the new holiday, is as dated as the word “cyber.” In 2005, about half of American households still connected to the internet with dial-up modems, and the average advertised internet speed in the US was between 0.9 and 3.0 Mbps (pdf). But today dial-up is all but forgotten, and the average advertised internet speed in American homes is 21.2 Mbps.

Cyber Monday, however, proved too alluring a coinage to debunk, and the media ran with it. Retailers helped make it a self-fulfilling prophecy by extending sales from Black Friday over the holiday weekend and into the following Monday. The NRF, meanwhile, has found a new way to explain the shopping holiday.

In a press release this year, the group quoted an analyst saying, “Millennials love shopping in stores and online over Thanksgiving weekend for several reasons, including the opportunities afforded to them that allow them to splurge on ‘non-gifts’ for themselves and even the potential to sleep in on Black Friday after having spent the night before bouncing from store to store.”