Last night as I checked my phone before bed, my inbox was awash with urgent emails from retailers trying to eke out more purchases before the end of Cyber Monday: “Final hours,” “This is it!” “Last chance (really, really this time).”
Then, this morning, just as many emails greeted me—from many of the same retailers—confessing that last night’s deadline had been a false one: “Extended!” “BONUS DAY,” “It’s a Secret … Cyber Monday Is Still On.”
I didn’t feel happy or relieved or excited. I felt overwhelmed by the thought that perhaps I really should buy those new leather booties I’ve been considering but don’t technically need. That’s exactly the way these retailers wanted me to feel. Extended sales, far from good news for consumers, are designed to provoke just that kind of spending. They turn us into terrible, impulsive shoppers, spending more money than we should on stuff that we don’t really need or even want.
Cyber Monday itself sprung up from the realization that we don’t keep our post-Thanksgiving shopping confined to just one day. The moniker was coined in 2005 by the online division of the National Retail Federation after the organization noticed an uptick in online spending the Monday following Thanksgiving and Black Friday. The internet had become so fast and ubiquitous that people were doing their shopping while at their desks at work. Continued discounts would help lure customers even further away from other tasks, the NRF advised.
In the years since, the promotions have thoroughly bled into the surrounding days and even weeks. “I’m here to tell you that every day is Black Friday—and Cyber Monday,” Rick Broida wrote this year on CNET, where he tracks deals via the Cheapskate blog. This morning—Tuesday—he published a post titled “Cyber Monday 2018 Amazon deals still available.”
Why haven’t retailers just pushed to expand Cyber Monday to Cyber Week, as some observers are now calling it? Because that would defeat the point; continuing to use the wrong day of the week is designed to make it seem like a deal will be vanishing shortly. This invokes scarcity, the economic principle that says we’re more inclined to make a purchase if we think an item is about to go out of stock or to act on a discount if we think something will soon return to a higher price. It’s such an effective tactic that in one study, titled “Put a Limit on It,” researchers showed that advertising a healthy food choice as available for a restricted time seemed to lure people away from less healthy options, like a slice of pizza or serving of ice cream. Scarcity is sometimes referred to as a “weapon of influence,” they explain.
For retailers, using scarcity stands to increase sales. For the rest of us, it encourages impulse buys or, if we resist, compels us to exist in a continual state of FOMO as ads blaring time limits crowd electronic surfaces. It turns shopping into a game, an exercise in hunting and scrounging for resources, which is inherently more stressful than the straightforward exchange of money for goods that it should be.
That’s not to say that all sales are bad. We live in a world of sales and promotions, which is unlikely to change anytime soon. Given that, having a bunch of them clustered in Black Friday and Cyber Monday is actually good: It’s nice to plan to shop for clothes or pricey electronics when you know that many retailers will have a sizable discount off everything in their stores. It would even be OK—good, actually!—if the sales were formally extended into a week and items were guaranteed to be at a discount for that whole span. A sale that you can put in your calendar and peruse when you have time and a clear head is one that you can shop smartly.
Common wisdom among the shopping experts like those at my former employer Wirecutter is that you should go into a sale weekend with a shopping list if you want to avoid temptation. “I familiarize myself with what I specifically want (or maybe a few variations on that item) and then watch that specific thing for sales,” the site’s former editor-in-chief Jacqui Cheng told me for a post I wrote in advance of last summer’s Prime Day. But when the sale extends forever in our inboxes, it’s easier to be tempted.
What’s more, the relentless extension of Cyber Monday stands to draw attention and dollars away from Giving Tuesday, which was founded in 2012 and has been at least somewhat successful in directing some of the enthusiasm around spending toward positive causes. The luxury gym Equinox even had the audacity to text me a promotion tied to Giving Tuesday equal in monetary value to a promotion they have offered me countless times since I quit in August: “Give yourself the gift of Equinox. TODAY ONLY you can rejoin for $0.” In this instance, acknowledging the change in the calendar was kind of gross.