A Holiday That Shows the ‘Power of Chinese Consumption’
In just a few years, Nov. 11 has become the busiest online shopping day on Earth.
It is known as Singles Day in China, an event in which online retailers offer massive promotions and shoppers happily gobble up the bait. Some have called it “a 24-hour orgy of consumption.”
The informal holiday was started as a joke by a group of Chinese college kids in the 1990s, a kind of anti-Valentine’s Day to commiserate over breakfast about their single status. The origin story dictates that the students would celebrate each Nov. 11, or 11.11, by eating four youtiao — fried dough strips whose shape resembles the number 1 — as well as one round steamed bun to symbolize the “.” in “11.11.”
Six years ago, Alibaba, China’s largest online retailer, turned the day into an excuse to go shopping when it began offering special deals on the holiday in 2009. Since then, the company’s sales have climbed precipitously. This year, $14.3 billion in goods was sold through Alibaba’s platform on Singles Day, up from $9.32 billion last year. To put that in perspective, that’s about four times as much as U.S. consumers spent last year online on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.
Within eight minutes of midnight, when the sales began, Alibaba had sold more than $1 billion in goods. The Chinese post office estimated that 760 million packages would be shipped by e-commerce sites on that one day.
The day is such a big deal that Alibaba hired actor Kevin Spacey to do a promotional bit as President Frank Underwood from House of Cards — a character who is particularly beloved in China.
One of the most fascinating things about this shopping holiday: It offers a glimpse into an industry where China is outpacing and outperforming the United States. We’re used to thinking that China does a lot of low-level manufacturing but still falls behind advanced countries when it comes to innovation and advanced manufacturing. And for some industries, that is true — in airplane manufacturing, for example, China remains maybe a decade behind.
But in other high-tech areas — such as DNA sequencing, mobile advertising and e-commerce — China is surprisingly advanced. On average, Chinese people seem much more comfortable buying goods online, and Chinese online sites tend to have rolled out a much wider array of goods and services.
There are a few reasons for China’s success in e-commerce. One is that, for many Chinese businesses, it has made sense to leapfrog brick-and-mortar expansion and go straight to promoting their products online. China is a geographically large and heavily populated country. For most retail chains, ensuring that a significant portion of Chinese customers have access to their stores would mean undertaking a huge amount of construction.
At the same time, the Chinese have been very quick to get online and, specifically, to adopt mobile Internet. A report released this year by the Global System for Mobile Communications Alliance said that China has the world’s highest penetration rate for smartphones, with 62 percent of Chinese owning smartphones during the first three months of the year, compared with 55 percent of Europeans.
Unlike people in the United States, many Chinese went directly to using mobile Internet without ever going online using a desktop computer or a laptop.