Strictly Single with an army of suitors

Updated 2017-11-08 09:03:11 China Daily
Visitors are drawn to a promotional event for the Singles Day shopping festival in Shanghai.(WU JIANDE/CHINA DAILY)

Visitors are drawn to a promotional event for the Singles Day shopping festival in Shanghai.(WU JIANDE/CHINA DAILY)

China's annual 24-hour, online spending extravaganza is bigger than U.S.-based super sales, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, put together

A decade ago, Nov 11 was just another date in the calendar unless it was your birthday.

Even in 2009, it hardly created waves when it became known as Singles Day.

For Wang Lingjing, vice-general manager of Shanghai Duowei Commercial Co Ltd, it was nothing to get excited about.

"Initially, just 27 merchants signed up for the event, promising to halve prices and raise awareness of online shopping, which was still a rarity in China," she said.

Fast forward eight years and Singles Day is "too big to ignore" even for Wang and the cosmetic company she works for.

Duowei and its 50-strong staff have stocked products worth millions of yuan just for Nov 11 and the millions of customers looking for bargains.

"Pre-orders have been brisk," Wang said.

From its humble beginnings, Singles Day has morphed into a 24-hour spending extravaganza and an unparalleled marketing opportunity for brands to expand their customer base.

In short, it is the largest online shopping day in the world, and the brainchild of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

Last year, on Nov 11, 120.7 billion yuan (.2 billion) was spent on the group's various platforms from 100,000 brands.

Incredibly, that was a staggering 2,000-fold increase from 2009, and triple the spending power of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined in the United States in 2016.

But then everything about this retail jamboree is quirky. The phrase Singles Day derived from an internet joke to celebrate singletons on Nov 11, which was written in the form of four "1s".

"It was a smart gimmick by Alibaba to arouse the kind of psychological comfort zone needed by bachelors through online shopping," said Neil Wang, president of consultancy Frost & Sullivan Greater China.

"It has become a shopping celebration," he added.

Adam Xu is a partner with Strategy&, which was formerly Booz & Co but is now a consultancy subsidiary of PwC, or PricewaterhouseCoopers, a multinational professional services network.

He agreed with Wang's view, insisting that the event has become a "social phenomenon".

"It is just like in the old days when department stores hosted promotions during Chinese New Year or National Day holidays," Xu said. "Nov 11 is core to today's commerce."

As a curtain raiser to Singles Day, Alibaba announced its full lineup of shows and bargains in Shanghai last month.

Daniel Zhang, the group's chief executive officer, promised promotions on more than 15 million products from 140,000 brands through its marketplace platforms.

These figures are hardly surprising when you consider Alibaba's ambition is to serve 2 billion customers in two decades.

The sheer size of China's e-commerce industry is staggering since Nov 11 was rolled out nine years ago.

"It already eclipses the U.S. as the largest online retail market and by 2020 it is expected to generate online retail sales worth .42 trillion," research firm eMarketer stated.

Even though Alibaba has trademarked Singles Day, e-commerce rivals, and NetEase's overseas shopping sites are likely to take a slice of the action.

Consultancy Frost & Sullivan has predicted that this year's event will see gross merchandise volume reach 150 billion yuan, a rise of 24.3 percent year-on-year.

This is remarkable when you consider that online discounting has become normal in China.

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