Singles Day: the world’s largest online shopping phenomenon

Happy Singles Day!

Black Friday isn’t here for another couple of weeks yet, but did you know today is actually the largest online shopping day in the world?  And by quite some distance.

It is hard to overstate the scale of the Singles Day phenomenon in China.  Between 2009 and 2013, sales rose by 5,740%.

Last year, Singles Day sales totalled $14.3bn (£9.4bn), making it bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Early sales figures suggest that 2016 sales are likely to dwarf even those previous records, with sales of $5bn in the first hour of trading alone.

As is seemingly the case with most world-changing business ideas these days, the concept of Singles’ Day was developed by a group of smart young students on a university campus.

In 1993, students at China’s Nanjing university created Singles Day as a way to celebrate their singledom, by organising events and buying presents for themselves. The 11th November was chosen because the date 11/11 represents four single people, or ‘bare branches’ as they are also referred to in China.

The event soon caught on with other university campuses around the country, but Singles Day really took off in 2009, when online retail giant Alibaba began marketing ‘Double 11’ deals to mark the occasion.  Huge price markdowns and low shipping rates created a massive sales surge, and the event has grown in scale and popularity every year since.

Singles Day isn’t just a retail phenomenon, it’s a multi-sensory, participatory, all-singing all-dancing entertainment extravaganza.  The highlight of Singles Day 2015 was a 4-hour TV variety show, during which viewers were periodically prompted to shake their phone to win sale vouchers that were redeemable via a mobile shopping app, and play along with online games offering real life prizes.

And it wasn’t just any old TV variety show.  Alongside a number of Chinese celebrities some worldwide superstars appeared, including Adam Lambert performing his new single, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, and Daniel Craig as James Bond.

(Not that Daniel Craig looked entirely happy to be there, in truth.  As John Oliver commented on Last Week Tonight, “I’ve never seen James Bond look so awkward and sad.  And most of his girlfriends have died in front of him”.

The fans absolutely loved it though.  Seats in the studio audience were changing hands for up to $785, and competitions such as the opportunity to buy a Cadillac for 15 cents kept TV viewers glued to their seats until midnight, when the starter’s pistol fired on the largest shopping spree ever seen.  It took just 8 minutes to register $1bn in sales.

This year’s extravaganza is equally star-studded, with appearances from the likes of David Beckham and Kobe Bryant entertaining the crowds.

The amazing success of Singles Day can be attributed to a combination of factors, including:

the rapid growth in China’s middle class, with its increased spending power and attendant rise in consumerism;

– China’s gender imbalance (driven by the One Child Policy leading many families to favour male children), creating a large group of single young men with high disposable income;

– An increase in online shopping due to greater internet access and device ownership.

Mobile shopping is a major feature of Singles Day.  According to Alibaba, which holds the majority share of China’s online shopping market, 72% of total ‘Double 11’ transactions in 2015 were from mobile devices, up from 43% in 2014.

Initial reports indicate that over 80% of this year’s sales will come from mobile devices.

The high proportion of mobile sales is no great surprise when you consider the youthful audience of China’s single population, combined with the immediacy of the timed offers Alibaba has made such a feature of its ‘Double 11’ marketing programme.

Singles Day may currently be the biggest online shopping day nobody’s ever heard of, but that’s surely going to change as Alibaba becomes better known around the world and the sales figures involved generate increasing global interest.

As Tmall’s then-CEO Wang Yulei said in 2014, “future Singles Days will definitely not just be for consumers in a particular region, Singles Day will be for the whole world.”

That prediction hasn’t proved true just yet, but being young, single and comfortable shopping online are not uniquely Chinese traits, so the concept will undoubtedly spread as retailers across the world look to replicate Alibaba’s success.