“So far I bought myself a new digital camera and a new winter jacket but I’m not done,” Terri Chin, a Beijing-based hotel associate manager, said in a Facebook message. It was 12:30 p.m. on the U.S. East coast, meaning it was 1:30 a.m. in Beijing, an hour and a half into China’s Singles Day sale, the annual e-commerce blowout sale that puts Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Boxing Day to shame.
“I’m not really sure, I don’t think I need anything else, but you know buying what you need is not what this holiday is about,” Chin half-joked. “Actually, to be totally honest, it’s not even about being single, it’s about buying stuff!”
Chin was right. If projections by Alibaba are correct, the biggest e-commerce retailer in China will record $8 billion worth of transactions on Singles Day.
Though it may be hard to imagine now, Nov. 11, known as Singles Day or the Anti-Valentine’s Day, wasn’t always the monster commercial event it has become.
According to several accounts, Guanggun Jie, or Singles Day, began on the campus of Nanjing University in 1993, initiated by the untethered male students who spent their time hanging out and going to bars to meet other single people. Nov. 11 was selected because the numbers in 11/11 looked like a physical representation of single people. The way the day was celebrated slowly changed, with women taking part in the celebrations and adding more traditions from attending special singles-only parties to eating a Chinese snack called "youtiao," a deep-fried dough stick that resembles a churro and also looks like the number 1.
However, the combination of growing consumerism in China with a growing bachelor population, plus the Internet, has turned Singles Day into a nationwide shopping phenomenon that is now ready for its international debut.
In 2009, Alibaba -- then known mostly for its e-commerce website Tmall or Taobao -- reintroduced Singles Day to the Chinese as a day to treat yourself to some retail therapy. Convincing China’s millions of young single people was not difficult. A mixture of fattening wallets thanks to a prospering economy, and a gender imbalance prompted by the One Child Policy, which led to people preferring male children, created a lot of single men, and made focusing on bachelor spending an easy decision.
The online sales event offered slashed prices and unbeatable shipping rates and saw revenue growth every year that followed. In just four years, the phenomenon grew to the point that Alibaba recorded $5.8 billion worth of transactions on Singles Day last year and expects 40 percent sales growth this year. Now, Alibaba has plans to take the event global.
“This year for Singles Day, our keyword is globalization. Starting from this year, future Singles Days will definitely not just be for consumers in a particular region, Singles Day will be for the whole world,” Tmall CEO Wang Yulei wrote an article for Sina Tech, a Chinese news portal, in October.
But Alibaba isn't alone in capitalizing on this trend. Dallas-based Dealmoon.com, a Chinese-American shopping website, announced it would also be holding Singles Day promotions. “Singles Day is truly the biggest online shopping holiday that many U.S. shoppers actually don’t know about,” Jennifer Wang, Dealmoon.com’s co-founder and CMO said in an email. “This year, Dealmoon will offer over 50+ exclusive, best of web deals on November 11th to help attract more and more American consumers to this special shopping day.”
Chin, the hotel employee planning to spend big on Singles Day, said that plans to go global are a smart move. After all, being single and shopping online is not uniquely a Chinese thing.
“I think it will work in the U.S.,” Chin said. “I mean all you need really are young people with money and minimal obligations, and I’m pretty sure that’s something the U.S. and China both have.”