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By Marianna Cerini


Ask any Western brands about the main marketing events on their yearly planner, and chances are Christmas, Black Friday and Cyber Monday will be the top three ‘shopping holidays’ they’ll have marked down (Boxing Day coming a close fourth in Europe). All extremely lucrative, these dates offer companies the chances to drive sales up, push products and create brand awareness like few other occasions.


Well, quite. In China, another day ought to be circled out in bright red marker: November 11. Singles’ Day.


Started as an anti-Valentine’s celebration,  the spending-driven holiday has taken a size of epic proportions over the years – it is now the biggest shopping event worldwide – and become an impossible-to-ignore opportunity for business, on a global level.


The Origin Story


Known in China as “bare sticks holiday” because of its numeral appearance – 11:11resemble four solitary twigs – Singles’ Day first emerged in the early 1990s atNanjing University as a way for male students to celebrate their singledom.


The event was initially called Bachelors’ Day, but was quickly adopted by the campus’ female population too. It was marked with parties, meals out and the occasional karaoke session, offering an excuse to get together just for fun, without the pressure often imposed by many Chinese families to find partners and marry young.


By the late 2000s, young people around the country had embraced it as an official holiday of sorts, and a reason to buy gifts for their single friends – and themselves.


In 2009, Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, decided to make the day an essential part of his company’s branding strategy, presenting it as an online-only retail celebration of single people. The first Singles’ Day online sale was held.


It was a smart move from the businessman: Singles’ Day was the product of China’s first internet-savvy generation. Positioning it as a digital event made it all the more relatable to the consumers it targeted. It also filled the lull between China’s Golden Week (a seven-day national holiday) and the Christmas season.


In that first year, just 27 merchants held “Double 11” deals on the site’s Tmall platform, cashing in 50 million RMB. In 2010, Alibaba went bigger, launching higher discounts and involving more brands. Other websites, including its main competitor, started hosting 11.11 retail extravaganzas as well, in the hope to get a slice of the pie. Comparisons to Cyber Monday were quick to emerge among observers of China’s digital retail sphere.


11.11.11 – the “Singles’ Day of the century” – saw sales skyrocket to some 4 billion RMB. The following year, Alibaba trademarked the name and  registered at least six more trademarks associated with the phrase “Double Eleven,”  igniting the ire of executives.


By November 11, 2013, Singles’ Day had become the biggest online-shopping day of the year (and not just for singles:  the event was now being touted as an all-inclusive holiday) for China, making Alibaba over five billion US dollars in sales.


It has been breaking records since. This year, its total passed 30.8 billion US dollars, and that’s just for theHangzhou-based company alone (aided also by the participation of Alibaba’s Southeast Asia unit Lazada Group).


Through the years, Alibaba has worked on giving the day a “real” holiday feel  by hosting  live streaming fashion and variety shows the evening before it, often inviting international celebrities –some might remember Kevin Spacey’s appearance as President Underwood from House of Cards in 2015.


Last year, its fashion show adopted a see-now-buy-now format for the first time, and was broadcast on Tmall and Taobao’s streaming platforms. This year, the runway also featured on Weibo, video platform Youku, news aggregator Toutiao, smart TV platform CIBN, and TV channelBeijing.


Little is left of the event’s original purpose. Today, Singles’ Day is all about commerce – and the ever-growing power of Chinese online consumers.


Let’s Compare


Singles’ Day is not the only ‘holiday’ to have been created for shopping purposes.


In America, you have Black Friday, which is tethered to the tail end of Thanksgiving and dates back to 1961, and CyberMonday, first introduced in 2005 as online shopping became more widespread. The former relies heavily on in-store deals and discounts – images of frenzied shoppers running to Walmarts across the country to get their hands on half priced electronics have become all too evocative of the day – and, generally, is considered as marking the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season. The latter exists only digitally, and, because of that, is the closest counterpart to Singles’ Day.


The Chinese festivity dwarfs both in terms of sales: American shoppers spent $19.7 billion around Black Friday last year(figures for this year have yet to be released, although traffic to stores has been said to have fallen as much as 9 percent from 2017),while last month’s Cyber Monday cashed in $7.8 billion. The figure is  almost 20 percent up from 2017, but still remarkably small next to its Asian counterpart.


Boxing Day sales are also far behind the sheer scale of Alibaba’s shopping bonanza. In the UK, they have been on a decline, for instance.


The why is in the way the two consumer markets – Western and Asian – approach retail.


In the West, most shopping holidays (except Cyber Monday, of course) have been leaning on traditional retail methods such as physical stores for decades and through generations. Brands still often focus on shoppers’ footfall and store-based consumer behaviour, or try to attract audiences to their own websites, rather than multi-store platforms like, say, Amazon (which hasn’t proved particularly successful at selling high-fashion anyway).    


In China, it’s an altogether different landscape. Brick-and-mortar is obviously an important component of the retail experience, but recent generations of spenders –particularly millennials and Generation Z – have never learned to rely heavily on it, because e-commerce has always been part of their picture.


While Western consumers are slowly shifting towards web-based retail – and they certainly are: internet sales forBlack Friday surged 26.4% from a year earlier to $12.3 billion, according to Adobe Systems Inc., which tracks thousands of websites, and department stores are definitely going through a dark era – but are still largely led by offline players; young Chinese consumers haven never had to make the switch. They are mobile, web and social media savvy in ways that are ahead of much of the global market. They also count on ‘aggregating’ platforms like Alibaba and – huge market places with a variety of options – meaning they can shop more, faster, and all in one place.


In a world where the digital ecosystem is taking over so much of our daily lives, that means they are nimbler, smarter online shoppers. Singles’ Day has simply cashed in on that.




Ignoring or overlooking Singles’ Day would be a shortfall for any company eager to break into the China market or consolidate their presence in the country.


Yet, for a long time, luxury brands have been hesitant to participate in the shopping bonanza. It made sense, in a way:discounts and coupons don’t necessarily sit well with the idea of exclusivity and premium quality.


But as Chinese shoppers have matured, garnered more spending power and made the comfort of their laptops or mobiles the chief way they purchase, attitudes from many luxury players have changed.


Over the last two years, companies like Guerlain, La Perla, La Mer, Rimowa and Tag Heuer have worked with Alibaba and its luxury shopping platform Luxury Pavilion to launch targeted strategies and products for Singles Day. In 2017, high-end luggage brand Rimowa ran a collaboration with Chinese artist Yue Minjun to sell a set of hand-painted suitcases. La Perla sold limited-edition pyjamas embroidered with 18-karat gold, while La Mer offered its face cream in an exclusive mother-of-pearl casing.


This year, British luxury label Burberry released a limited edition wool scarf on its Tmall flagship store specifically for Singles’ Day (it sold out within hours). Italian powerhouse Versace had a special hoodie with its signature tiger head, and Chanel promoted its beauty line on its WeChat channel the day before the festival. Others, from Saint Laurent toTiffany, Estée Lauder to Lancôme, have also focused their efforts around 11.11with specially-tailored branding.


The list of brands set to join this bandwagon is only set to grow in the coming years. And that’s smart: taking advantage of the day’s huge online traffic, companies can solidify their identity in front of a crucial and ever-growing consumer segment.  They can be creative in terms of advertising, increase loyalty and show they take the market seriously with exclusive products conceived just for Chinese consumers.


It’s more than just a sale.


What’s Next? 


Singles’ Day is only bound to get bigger.And while Alibaba has so far been the unquestionable king of the holiday, its competitors aren’t sitting idle. has been rolling out competing initiatives, including a similar retail event on June 18 –simply named Shopping Festival – which earned the company $18.5 billion in sales this year. For 11.11, it made $23 billion (up to 26 percent from last year) running an 11-day campaign (from November 1 to 11) across all its platforms. Toplife, its dedicated luxury portal, provided sales on brands like Mulberry, Ferragamo and Saint Laurent.


Luxury e-commerce platforms have also weighed in. Farfetch ran a nationwide sales event presented as a social media game on its WeChat account, testing users’ knowledge of luxury brands as part of their purchasing process., Net-a-Porter and Vipshop have also capitalised on the holiday with their own campaigns, and done remarkably well:according to Federica Marchionni, International CEO of Secoo, who spoke at the New York Times InternationalLuxury Conference in Hong Kong on November 12, the site sold a $387,725 Rolex watch and a $68,929 Hermès Birkin bag during Singles’ Day this year.


These websites are far from taking over theHangzhou giant in terms of performance, but they do pose challenges – and a healthy competition — to its position at the top.


The next step, possibly, would be for Singles’ Day to expand beyond China.


Just like Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are now run in a number of countries, the Chinese shopping bonanza might soon become one more reason for British or French or American shoppers to reach for their credit cards.


That’s Alibaba’s intention, at least. In2014, the company’s Alizila newsletter announced that the “11.11 ShoppingFestival” would become a “cross-border affair” involving more than two hundred countries. 


This year, Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang Yong said at a press conference in Beijing before the event that the day would be ““bigger and more successful than in previous years.” Indeed, the  the festival did see the participation of more merchants and consumers outside China, with its subsidiary company Lazada Group holding discounts across Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore,Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.


But whether Western markets will adopt it remains to be seen. Each market retains its own behaviour: in the States, Singles’ Day would fall too close toThanksgiving. In the UK, November 11 is Remembrance Day.


Still, there’s something to be said for the holiday’s exponential growth and ambitions since it first started. Should Alibaba be able to localise its sales experience in different countries, things could very play out its way.


Key Takeaways


  • Singles’ Day is the world’s largest shopping festival, and a key date in China’s retail calendar
  • It wildly overtakesBlack Friday and Cyber Monday, two other main shopping holidays, in terms of reach and sales. This year, its total passed 30.8 billion US dollars .
  • Chinese shoppers are mobile- and internet-savvy in ways that surpass  their Western counterparts, who are still very much shifting between physical and online shopping experiences. Singles’Day has been able to capitalise on the local market’s digital mobility. It also shows the sheer spending resilience of Chinese consumers.
  • Brands should strategize around Singles’ Day not just for its sales possibilities, but also to increase brand identity and loyalty.
  • Effectively owned by Alibaba, other e-tailers – including luxury ones – have also joined the fray in planning marketing campaigns and deals around Singles’ Day. It’s the smart thing to do.