November 11 is Singles' Day or 光棍节 Guanggun Jie in China, a tongue-in-cheek festival celebrated amongst the younger crowd. It's a uniquely Chinese observance, and only came into existence two decades ago. This date was specifically selected because the number '1' resembles a lone figure, signifying loneliness.
Origins, how it's evolved, what it's become today
Singles' Day is said to have originated from Nanjing, initially as a self-deprecating joke among university students bemoaning the fact that they were single. It was a day invented as an excuse for Chinese singles to console and pamper themselves by buying the things they wanted. Shops were quick to jump onto the bandwagon, offering special Singles' Day sales in an effort to tap into the growing market, and from there, it snowballed into what is now the world's biggest online shopping bonanza.
Sorting out Singles' Day packages. Photo from Reuters
All thanks to Alibaba's stroke of marketing brilliance back in 2009. The online shopping retailer launched a massive campaign - stylized as 双十一 Shuang Shiyi (Double Eleven), a phrase they've now patented - right around the time e-commerce was gaining traction in China, offering special online deals and discounts. It started off on singles-targeted items like boyfriend body pillows, but now spans everything from coffee beans and toilet paper to cars and furniture.
Graph from Quartz
Graph from Quartz
China loved it. Sales numbers grew by leaps and bounds every year, with Alibaba logging in $9.3 billion in sales transactions in 2014 before beating this total by 60% in 2015 with a whopping $14.3 billion. This figure exceeds the annual revenues of some multinational companies and even the GDP of some countries.
Traditionally Alibaba hosts a gala to go with the event, but took the 'festivities' a step further in 2015 by putting on an elaborate, Super Bowl-esque show at Beijing's Water Cube. American singer and songwriter Adam Lambert and Cpop superstar Jolin Tsai were among those who performed, while Bond actor Daniel Craig made a (very awkward) appearance. Local celebrities were split into teams of red and black and competed throughout the night in a series of games, as viewers at home voted for who they thought would be the winning team.
English comedian John Oliver sums it up hilariously on Last Week Tonight, check it out below (VPN required):
It all culminated into a dramatic countdown to midnight, before a two-storey screen lit up with real time sales numbers. In the first minute, 85, 900 transactions were handled per second, and by the time thirty minutes have passed, Alibaba had recorded RMB19 billion, "the whole total three years ago" according to CEO Daniel Zhang.
Photo from Reuters via Quartz
The Singles Day spectacle only grew bigger last year, with Alibaba's Tmall portal hosting over 60,000 live streaming broadcasts featuring more than 100 celebrities and 50 sports stars. The Nov 10 gala in Shenzhen saw the likes of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and German footballer Thomas Mueller making guest appearances.
This year's gala will be held in Shanghai itself, and is already boasting a roster filled with some of the most popular faces in China's pop culture scene—Jessie J, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and singer Chris Lee, as well as Hong Kong-born Kpop idol Jackson Wang have all been confirmed to attend. Super Bowl producer David Hill, who directed last year's show has signed on to do this year's as well.
Massive slash-offs on Taobao, JD.com, Yihaodian and shopping apps like 小红书 Xiaohongshu
Shuang Shiyi has now become synonymous with Alibaba's crazy 24-hour shopping extravaganza, but discounts are no longer limited to the day nor to Taobao or Tmall solely. Online portals like JD.com and Yihaodian and shopping apps like 小红书 Xiaohongshu have all managed to carve a space out of the pie for themselves.
Marketing campagins have grown more sophisticated over the years too, with random discounts and flash sales giving away to themed discounts on Yihaodian and JD.com, and hongbao and freebies galore on Taobao.
It's turned into a huge online culture. Shoppers will start curating their personal shopping list weeks, even months in advance, and in the days leading up to Nov 11, will start chucking these items into their digital shopping cart. At the stroke of midnight, everybody starts checking out collectively in the hopes that they've managed to cash in on the best possible discounts.
In recent years, another shopping festival, known as 双十二 Shuang Shier, has also been growing in popularity. Occuring on, you guessed it, December 12, the sales are on a much smaller scale with a tagline that encourages shoppers to take advantage of any deals or discounts that they might have missed during Shuang Shiyi. So if for whatever reason you're unable to shop on Nov 11, there's always next month.
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