China’s Singles’ Day: why November 11 is the world’s biggest retail event

The first incarnation of Singles’ Day as a retail event in China didn’t take place until 2009, when Alibaba got on board.

It began as a celebration of singlehood, but the impact of China's Singles’ Day retail event is now being felt around the globe.

By Jessica Mudditt

When a small group of male university students celebrated their status as bachelors back in 1993, they could never have imagined that it would spawn Singles Day, the world’s largest retail event.

The date of 11.11 was chosen to reflect the Chinese idiom of “bare sticks”– men who remain single all their lives. Other universities in China began hosting matchmaking events for singles and the idea of annual festivities took off nationwide with the rise of social media.

However, the first incarnation of Singles’ Day as a retail event didn’t take place until 2009, when Alibaba got on board.

The Chinese e-commerce giant generated US$7.8 billion (AUD$10.8 billion) in sales through what it called the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival. It put a commercial spin on the Chinese saying, “If you cannot be with someone you like, you can at least be with something you like”.

By 2017 that figure had jumped to a staggering AUD$34 billion over the 24-hour sales period – that’s more than the AUD$26.3 billion all Australian retailers made over Christmas last year.

Related: What it's like to be at Alibaba's Singles' Day 24-hour shopping extravaganza

Alibaba’s Alipay payment system processed 256,000 transactions per second at the sale’s busiest time, with 1.48 billion transactions completed in total. Needless to say, it is not just singletons who get a dose of retail therapy on Singles’ Day.

While Alibaba remains the driving force behind the event’s skyrocketing sales figures, retailers and other online platforms around the world have initiated their own Singles’ Day sales.

Discounts down under

Last year, Australian products ranked third for sales on Singles’ Day behind the United States and Japan. Melbourne-based vitamin and supplements company Swisse was the most popular imported brand by sales volume, and a second Australian brand, Bio Island, also made the list of top five cross-border brands.

According to Alibaba Group’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Maggie Zhou, 180,000 brands are expected to offer Singles’ Day discounts in 2018. While Australia is unlikely to pip Japan or the US in sales volumes, she says that Australian retailers can expect another bumper year.

“We are seeing rising demand for Australian health and beauty products, as well as fashion brands, including activewear. Australian-owned pet food brands are also rising in popularity amongst Chinese consumers,” Zhou says.

She adds that there is also a growing demand for Australian fresh food, including beef, seafood and horticultural products.

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Australian fresh food sales

“Australia has a reputation as a safe provider in terms of having top quality brands,” says Angus Kidman, editor-in-chief of finder.com.au.

Last year Australia was ranked fifth in cross-border sales on Alibaba after Russia, Hong Kong, the United States and Taiwan.

“There has definitely been a surge in the number of local retailers taking part,” Kidman says.

“Singles’ Day is probably a couple of years away from being a mainstream retail event in Australia, but it seems to be going through the same transformation as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which both went from being highly localised sales in the US to global phenomena.”

The increasing popularity of online shopping and digital commerce platforms makes such transformations possible, though geography does still play a role. Singles’ Day spread first from China to Southeast Asia before taking hold in Australia, while Europe and the United States are not quite there yet.

Fighting sales fatigue

Kidman believes the only factor that could slow down the speed of Singles’ Day adoption in Australia is competition from a host of sales in the same month. In close succession come Singles’ Day (11 November), Click Frenzy (13 November), Black Friday (23 November), and Cyber Monday (26 November). Then a month later, there’s Boxing Day.

“There are overlapping audiences, but there are also audiences who are going to buy into one but not the other,” explains Kidman.

He believes that retailers should capitalise on the opportunities Singles’ Day represents, rather than holding off until the event becomes well established in Australia.

“Black Friday has become a tight area because everybody’s in there offering deep discounts. But putting something on sale that’s a bit unusual for Singles’ Day – whether that’s a category or a product – may have a bit more cut-through. There might be opportunities now that won’t exist in a couple of years.”

While a spike in customer acquisitions is one of the main benefits of taking part, for many businesses it simply isn’t viable to run so many sales. Often the better alternative, says Kidman, is to pick just a couple to focus on.

November 11 is also Remembrance Day, when Commonwealth countries remember the fallen from their wars. Kidman dismisses the idea that actively promoting a sale on the same day could alienate a brand’s customer base and stoke controversy.

“It shouldn’t be a problem: shops are still open on that day. It would be trickier if Singles’ Day was on Anzac Day [a day of commemoration that is also a public holiday], as there are more sensitivities around it.”

In which case, let the markdowns begin.

Read next: Alibaba and JD.com battle it out for China's e-commerce business


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