How Cyber Monday Was Born

The creator of the online bargain bonanza on how they dreamed up a new shopping holiday–and why it was almost called “Blue Monday.”

How Cyber Monday Was Born
[Photo: Flickr user Brian Moore]

Here’s a bit of trivia for you as you spend the day scouring the Internet for bargains: It’s the 10th anniversary of Cyber Monday.


A decade ago, during the happy years before the recession, retailers noticed a spike in online sales the Monday after Thanksgiving. In a stroke of marketing genius, the National Retail Federation decided to make the it an official shopping day. In a small room in the NRF’s Washington, D.C. office, Ellen Davis, then a mid-twenties executive on the PR team, coined the term “Cyber Monday.” “It’s a random bit of cocktail party conversation I like to bring up sometimes,” Davis says. “It’s surreal to think that I’m associated with a term that has taken off like this.”

And taken off, it has: Americans are increasingly spending more money on Cyber Monday than during Thanksgiving or Black Friday. Over the last two years, in fact, they’ve spent more on Cyber Monday than on Thanksgiving and Black Friday combined. Today is expected to be the biggest shopping day of all time, with predicted sales of over $3 billion.

A decade ago, online shopping was in the midst of a major transformation. In 2005, 33% of American households made an online purchase during the holiday season, up from only 10% a year before. “Remember, this was a time before Twitter and iPhones,” Davis points out. “The Internet was very much in its infancy. Many people didn’t have a secure, fast Internet connection at home, so they were waiting until Monday when they could buy deals online at work.” Meanwhile, what they were buying was also in flux. E-commerce began with “safe” purchases like books from Amazon or iPods from the Apple store–stuff you didn’t have to try on that came from reliable retailers. Thanks to improved return policies, consumers were now getting up the nerve to buy riskier and higher-ticket items like clothes, sneakers, TVs, and treadmills.

There was no longer as much need to get up at the crack of dawn on Black Friday to snag deals and body-check other shoppers who might be interested in that same six-piece non-stick cookware set. You could shop in your pajamas from the luxury of your couch. Even better, you could spend the day after Thanksgiving hanging out with your family and then shop online when you got back to your office on Monday—because who really gets much work done on a Monday after the holiday anyway?

Davis and her team were tasked with come up with a term to easily describe this shift in behavior. There were other phrases that didn’t make the cut. They considered calling it Black Monday, in keeping with the Black Friday theme. “But that was also what we call the greatest stock market crash of all time,” Davis points out. Also in the running: Blue Monday, after the color of hyperlinks, or Green Monday, because, well, money is green. “I liked the idea of Cyber Monday because it clearly described what was going on,” she says. “Also, if you did a search for the term ‘Cyber Monday’ in 2005, you got zero results.”

The name stuck. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the rest of the media picked up the term. “We spoke the word into existence and we really haven’t been able to escape it since,” Davis says. “It took off so fast that I don’t really feel a sense of ownership over the term. The media, the retail industry, and consumers have really embraced it.”


For a segment of the population, shopping on Black Friday is a cherished holiday tradition. According to the NRF, a third of people who go out to the shops after Thanksgiving do so with their families. But in recent years, an anti-consumerist backlash to Black Friday has bubbled up. REI, for instance, closed all 143 of its stores for the day (and even stopped processing orders on its website), encouraging its employees and customers to instead get outside for some exercise and save the bargain-hunting for the following week; Patagonia typically uses the holiday to push its “buy less stuff” message. Avoiding the post-Thanksgiving fracas at the mall is becoming de rigueur–more than 121 million consumers are expected to bargain-hunt online today, up from 107 million five years ago.

So if you’re feeling guilty that you’ve already ordered that 55-inch smart TV, snagged an additional 30% off everything on your reading list on Amazon, and contributed to crashing Target’s website this morning when you really should have been finishing up that darn TPS report, you are in good company.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.