Explainer: 11 Things You Need to Know About Singles' Day

By Ella Wong, November 9, 2018

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The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

It’s a common complaint that Christmas and Valentine’s Day have become over-commercialized, but no holiday has been given a capitalist makeover quite like Singles’ Day, when China’s e-commerce giants slash their prices for 24 hours of frantic online sales. Before you scurry off on your cyber bargain hunt, here are 11 things you need to know about the shopping bonanza that is Shuang Shiyi.

1. We should really call it Double 11

The English name Singles’ Day takes its name from the Chinese guanggun jie (光棍节), but the date is now more commonly called shuang shiyi  (双十一), or ‘Double 11,’ after the date, November 11, which when written 11/11 conjures four singletons and/or four leafless trees. The Chinese term guanggun literally means ‘bare branches’ and refers specifically to single men. (Single ladies, at least those who’ve reached the age of *gasp* 28 without finding a husband, are known as sheng nu or ‘leftover women.’)

 2. Singles’ Day was started by lonely college guys

Singles’ Day was conceived innocently enough, reputedly in a dorm room at Nanjing University in 1993, by four single male students looking to liven up their lonely lives with fun group activities for singles like KTV-ing and eating youtiao ­– the deep fried breakfast of champions that look like the number yi. The idea quickly grew into a nationwide tradition for young singles, almost certainly spurred by China’s overabundance of young men – a sex ratio imbalance created by the one-child policy.

 3. Alibaba turned Singles’ Day into China’s Cyber Monday

This being post-Deng China, someone had to imbue the Valentine’s Day for singles with Chinese characteristics. Enter Alibaba. In 2009, the company was looking for a way to boost sales during the commercial lull between the October Holiday and Chinese New Year, and seized on Singles’ Day – popular with their key user base of Internet-savvy balinghou – as a marketing stunt, convincing 27 merchants to discount their goods on Tmall. By 2014, 27,000 merchants were on board.  

4. Actually, Cyber Monday + Black Friday + steroids = not even close

Singles’ Day has seen phenomenal year-on-year growth, with Alibaba’s 2013 sales nearly doubling 2012’s USD3 billion haul. In 2014, Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sales of USD9.3 billion far exceeded the combined sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the first 90 minutes of November 11, 2015, Alibaba reported sales of USD5 million. And in 2016, Alibaba smashed records again, earning RMB35 billion in the first hour of sales. This year, total sales are predicted to exceed RMB190 billion

5. Future sales are set to soar thanks to smartphones

China’s population of 699 million smartphone users – surely set to grow thanks to slashed phone prices on Shuang Shiyi – has driven tremendous revenue growth in e-commerce as increasing numbers of people from rural China join the online shopping blowout.

6. Singles’ Day isn’t really just one day anymore

Just as the build-up to Christmas seems to begin earlier every year, so it is with 11/11 as sites begin luring customers by advertising discounts in the weeks leading up to the big day – though the payment still occurs on November 11. “It’s [only] 24 hours. You have to work for eight hours and you have to sleep for six hours. They wanted better [results] this year so they started earlier, will last longer, will have a bigger impact and, of course, will make more transactions happen,” Shanghai-based e-commerce expert Oceanne Zhang told the Guardian.

7. More than 15 million products were on offer in 2017

As the (now disgracedKevin Spacey once noted in a Singles’ Day plug, there are discounts on everything from burner phones to M&Ms to replicas of Oval Office desks. Choosing from more than 6 million products from 40,000 merchants and 30,000 brands, an estimated 100 million shoppers were expected to spend an average of RMB1,761 (USD277) each in 2015. 

According to the folks over at Alibaba, over 15 million products were discounted on Tmall last year from more than 140,000 brands. Among the 140,000 participating brands in 2017 were 60,000 international brands.

8.  The logistics are mindboggling

In Guangdong alone this year, the number of parcels that will be processed in the province is anticipated to hit 670 million(!). To help tackle the uptick in deliveries, shipping companies have rented 830,000 square meters of supplementary storage space in Guangdong and hired an additional 90,000 temporary kuaidi guys. Some 5,600 vehicles have been added to bolster the province’s kuaidi fleet, according to GRT Radio.

9. “Eleven/Eleven is going global”

So said Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang, who told Fortune in 2015: “Chinese consumers will be buying an unprecedented assortment of international brands and products from around the world,” among them, Costco, Disney, Lego, Sainsbury’s, Burberry, Estee Lauder, Nike, Topshop and Uniqlo.

10. In 2015, Singles’ Day was blamed for a shortage of baby formula in Australia 

In the months leading up to Singles’ Day 2015, supermarket shelves from Sydney to Melbourne were cleaned out of popular brands of baby formula, prompting angry complaints from Aussie parents and rationing from retailers, reported the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. Tasmanian manufacturer Bellamy’s Organic estimates that a third of its Australian sales actually end up in China.

11. Lots of orders placed on Singles’ Day are returned

Amidst all the breathless coverage about the world’s biggest shopping day, it’s worth noting that Double 11 sales figures could do with some scrutiny since they include orders that are later canceled or returned. As Tech in Asia observes, “In the past, Alibaba has said these numbers are trivial – a single-digit percentage of Alibaba’s total sales revenue – but outside estimates sometimes suggest the difference is significant. Research firm Gartner Inc. estimated that about 25 percent of China’s Singles Day purchases in 2013 were returned, for example.”

This article was originally published on Thatsmags.com in November 2015. It has been updated and republished on November 9, 2018.

For more of The Explainer, click here.

[Cover graphic by That's]

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