Here we go. Thanksgiving is 10 days away. Then we wake up to a turkey and stuffing-induced hangover as millions of Americans rush to their nearest strip malls, sacrificing sleep for the crazy once-a-year discounts of Black Friday.
And 72 hours later is the main event: Cyber Monday. We fire up our laptops, switch on our iPads, and when we must walk, we do so while glued to our smartphones, searching for an even more unbelievably awesome deal than the one staring us in the face.
The story is the same every year, just more of it. Amazon.com keeps taking wallet share from the old big-box stores, and the old big-box stores do everything in their power to stay relevant. EMarketer predicts that holiday retail e-commerce sales in the U.S. will jump 17 percent to $72.4 billion, accounting for 24 percent of online sales for the full year. That's still only a sliver of the total holiday retail market (offline plus online), which eMarketer predicts will grow at the much slower 5 percent rate to $862.5 billion during the celebratory season.
Smartphone shopping is just gaining steam, thanks to better interfaces, faster connections and a ton of investment in mobile payments. According to a survey by Accenture, almost one-quarter of Americans plan to make a purchase from a smartphone this holiday season, up from 18 percent in 2013.
Read MoreBlack Friday deals debunked
But how does all this stuff happen, and with such speed? Who keeps it from breaking? Who makes sure my stuff arrives on time? If my packages are a day late—the horror!—who do I call? In short, who are the magicians behind e-commerce?
All this week, CNBC.com will be exploring these questions and more in a series called "Powering the holidays." We'll look into what's happening behind the scenes at some of your favorite e-retailers and tell you about some of the hidden winners in the ever-increasing rush to the Web. It's not a comprehensive series—nobody has THAT much time—but hopefully we can shed some light on the little-known technologies that make consumers happy and allow cyber merchants to thrive.
The name Amazon will come up with frequency, but not because we have any inside knowledge on the industry giant. Amazon builds its own infrastructure, has its own warehouses and employs scores of data scientists to predict what you want, when and how (drones aren't delivering just yet).