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Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday: What's the difference anyway?

One is all about retail stores, the other is all online -- right? Actually, there's more to it than that.

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Looks like fun -- not.

Ron Pruitt/Demotix/Corbis
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2019, your source for the season's best gifts and deals, hand-picked by the experts at CNET.

We're days away from Thanksgiving, which means we're also counting down to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two of the biggest shopping days of the year. You don't need me to tell you what Turkey Day's all about (duh: turkey), but maybe you have some questions about the other two. Seriously, what's the deal with Black Friday and Cyber Monday -- they're just big sales that bookend the holiday weekend, right?

Actually, there's a bit more to the story.

When did Black Friday start?

Black Friday's origins are somewhat nebulous, with a fairly apocryphal theory the most widely believed: Because the day after Thanksgiving was typically a day off, it allowed Christmas shoppers to get a jump-start on their gift buying. Retail stores took advantage of this opportunity by holding major sales, which in turn helped them tip their annual sales numbers into "the black" (meaning out of "the red," which is accounting parlance for losing money). It certainly sounds plausible enough.

Now playing: Watch this: How to get great deals on Black Friday
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But the real story is different. According to History.com, the Philadelphia police force used the term "Black Friday" in response to the chaotic traffic caused not by big sales, but by massive attendance for the Army-Navy football game held annually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. (Apparently everyone came to town a day early.) It was only in the 1980s that retailers began to truly embrace the day for sale purposes.

This year, Black Friday is on Nov. 29 -- but deals are already well underway.

When did Cyber Monday start?

It's hard to believe, but Cyber Monday dates back to just 2005. Back then, before it was natural to order anything and everything online, shoppers still needed encouragement. Online stores began running their own big sales to compete with the brick-and-mortar juggernaut that was Black Friday.

Why "Cyber Monday"? Because in the old days, the internet was often referred to as "cyberspace." Quaint, no?

Why Monday and not Saturday? Because it turns out people like to shop while they're at the office, using fast computers and high-speed connections. (Remember, once upon a time, most people had only dial-up modems at home.) In the early days of online shopping, Monday proved a lucrative day for online stores -- so they embraced it.

Read more: 7 tips to score the best deals on Cyber Monday

Aren't they really the same thing?

Yes and no. Black Friday was born at retail. Cyber Monday was the online world's answer. So, in the beginning, you'd hit the stores on Friday, then hit cyberspace on Monday.

Now, Black Friday is as much an online event as it is a brick-and-mortar one -- arguably even more so. Although plenty of stores still run "doorbuster" sales that require shoppers to actually show up (check out this Kohl's ad from 2017, for example), the online world has fully embraced Black Friday.

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All sorts of fun products go on sale for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which can add up to steep savings for you.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But it doesn't really go the other way: Brick-and-mortar sales typically run on Friday and that's it. Cyber Monday is almost exclusively an online "holiday." The deals may also differ as a way for retailers to keep different deals feeling fresh.

Which day has the better deals?

It depends on what you're looking for. The aforementioned doorbusters will typically exceed anything you'll find online, whether on Friday or Monday, because stores are willing to break even or even lose money on a product in order to get you in the door, where it's presumed you'll also be more likely to buy other goods and gifts.

That said, modern shoppers tend to prefer online shopping, and while the deals themselves might not be quite as good on Cyber Monday as on Black Friday, the former tends to drive more actual revenue for sellers. In 2018, Cyber Monday sales hit $7.9 billion in the US, a new record and a solid increase over 2017. It also edged out Black Friday's $6.2 billion, which was also a record.

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What's more, doorbusters typically require standing in line, fighting crowds and a limited amount of inventory -- often for a comparatively modest savings. So the "better" deal might be the one that requires a few clicks instead of a few hours, even if it means spending more.

What you should know about both days

Don't get caught up in the hype. Stores pull out all the stops to make you experience FOMO: fear of missing out. "Best prices of the year!" "This sale will not be repeated!"

Hogwash. I make my living as The Cheapskate, and I'm here to tell you that every day is Black Friday -- and Cyber Monday. There will be some solid deals this November, no doubt about it, but I see similar ones all year. Sometimes better ones. For example, here's one of our best tips for scoring excellent Amazon deals any day of the year.

Ultimately, before you buy anything, on any day, be sure to do your homework and make sure that bargain is really a bargain.

Editors' note: This story is updated annually with new information.