China’s Singles Day already tops Black Friday. Now holiday creep is making the world’s biggest shopping event even bigger

November 2, 2021, 10:59 AM UTC

The Black Friday deals that signal the start of the holiday shopping season in the U.S. are arriving earlier every year.

This year, Black Friday in the U.S. began in the first week of October—11 days earlier than in 2020—as retailers and e-commerce firms gear up for the holiday season amid labor shortages, shipping issues, and the supply chain crunch.

Amazon, for instance, launched “Black Friday–worthy deals” on Oct. 4, 53 days before the actual holiday. Black Friday is increasingly turning into Black November.

A similar holiday creep is taking place in China. The country’s biggest shopping event, Singles Day, has now morphed into a three-week–long e-commerce extravaganza that started Monday, plus an October presale period. Last year, Chinese retailers extended their Singles Day promotions for the first time, from one day to 11.

Occurring every Nov. 11, Singles Day first spread across Chinese university campuses in the early 1990s as a sort of anti–Valentine’s Day that celebrates singledom, a challenge to a culture that reveres marriage and a traditional nuclear family. The date 11/11 symbolizes singlehood because the numerals look like four lone sticks or branches. In Mandarin Chinese, the term guanggun, (光棍), or “bare branches,” refers to people who are single.

In 2009, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba seized on the unofficial holiday to promote its new consumer-facing e-commerce platform, Taobao Mall (now rebranded as Tmall.com). Alibaba’s strategy was twofold: encourage individuals to celebrate their singledom by shopping—its first slogan was, “You can at least shop like crazy, even if you don’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend”—and lure customers with steep discounts and free deliveries.

Singles Day has now grown into the biggest shopping event in the world by consumer spend—eclipsing Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. The shopping festival has expanded beyond Alibaba, with all of China’s major e-commerce platforms and global brands taking part.

Jiang Fan, president of Taobao and Tmall at Alibaba Group, speaks as a final transaction figure is displayed at a gala for Alibaba’s annual Nov. 11 Singles Day online shopping event, in November 2020 in Hangzhou.
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

In 2009, the first year of Alibaba’s Singles Day, the company sold around $7.8 million worth of goods via 27 merchants.

Last year, Alibaba sold $74.1 billion worth of products from over 250,000 domestic and international brands. Together, Alibaba and rival JD.com sold a record-breaking $115 billion worth of goods during Singles Day 2020. In the U.S., Black Friday online shopping last year surged 22% to a record high of $9 billion—a mere fraction of China’s online Singles Day sales.

A key ingredient in China’s record-breaking Singles Day in 2020? Holiday creep.

Last year marked the first in which Alibaba expanded Singles Day beyond a single day so consumers could “enjoy double the fun,” said Zheng Liqing, head of consumer marketing for Alibaba’s Singles Day 2021, in a company blog post last week.

A longer Singles Day shopping festival gives retailers more time to capture shoppers and gives prospective customers more time to consider their purchases, which retailers hope will cut down on returns, says Steffi Noel, retail project lead at China-based Daxue Consulting. Returns are high during Singles Day given the “buy now or miss out” urgency of some deals.

All kinds of consumer goods are sold during Singles Day events, from big ticket electronics, to daily food items, to clothing, including luxury wear. Chinese families usually grocery-shop more than once a week, so an extended shopping window “multiplies the opportunities [for grocery apps like Hema and Pinduoduo] to make money,” says Noel.

Some brands are using the extended Singles Day period to experiment with how much of a discount they offer. “This diversity in discounts allows more luxury brands to participate, for instance, with different levels of discounts without appearing too aggressive on the pricing strategy,” Noel says. High-end brands tend to not offer steep discounts, fearing that they’ll diminish their products’ value and jeopardize the exclusivity of the brand name.

Alibaba also took customer feedback to heart, noted Zheng in the blog post. Tmall customers said that they wanted to start shopping earlier, so the company moved its presale start time up four hours to 8 p.m., so “people don’t even have to wait until midnight.”

The tactic is already working.

On Oct. 20, Alibaba’s Singles Day presale period kicked off with a bang. Alibaba’s Tmall, the country’s largest consumer-facing online shopping platform, crashed for 20 minutes owing to an overload of shoppers placing preorders. (Alibaba hasn’t released presale sales figures yet.)

Alibaba rival JD.com also bumped up its presale start time to 8 p.m. on Oct. 20. The earlier launch contributed to a 40% bump in orders in the first four hours of the presale compared with 2020, according to JD.

On the same day, Chinese livestreamer and beauty influencer Austin Li Jiaqi—colloquially known as China’s “lipstick king”—sold $1.9 billion worth of goods and attracted 250 million viewers in 12 hours during his Singles Day presale livestream on Taobao Live, Alibaba’s e-commerce livestream channel.

Meanwhile China’s “livestream queen” Huang Wei, who goes by the name Viya, sold $1.2 billion worth of goods, including cosmetics, clothes, and food items, in 14 hours during her Taobao Live presale on Oct. 20.

Despite the presale buzz, China’s internet platforms are acutely aware that they’ll need to tread carefully this Singles Day period, given Beijing’s promotion of “common prosperity,” an initiative to cut down on social inequality, and authorities’ stricter oversight of tech platforms.

The Singles Day shopping festival this year, which has now officially kicked off, has taken on a more subdued tone.

“This year marks a new chapter for 11.11,” said Alibaba’s chief marketing officer, Chris Tung, last week in an official statement. “We must leverage the power of 11.11 to encourage sustainable development and promote inclusiveness.”

Alibaba for one, says it’s shifting its priority to “sustainable growth” rather than measuring success purely by the value and amount of goods sold. Alibaba is emphasizing “eco-friendly consumption” on Singles Day over mega consumption. The company’s logistics arm, Cainiao, is rolling out a package recycling scheme to reduce the shopping festival’s carbon footprint.

Still, the Singles Day shopping extravaganza this year is likely to generate a massive windfall for merchants and drive a weeks-long consumption binge. The majority of Chinese consumers (52%) surveyed by consultancy Bain said they plan to spend even more during this year’s Singles Day; and Alibaba alone will feature almost 300,000 brands and 14 million deals.

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