11.11 – Singles’ Day and China’s Biggest (Online) Shopping Frenzy.

Still waiting for that special someone to spend the rest of your life with? While not necessarily a big deal in many countries in the West, this fact is quite a stigma in Chinese society once you’ve reached the ripe old age of 27 or 28 (for women) or mid-30s (for guys). But, even though Chinese singles have to contend with nagging relatives and pitying glances most of the time, there is one day of the year that is just for them: Singles’ Day.

This holiday is celebrated on November 11th each year, hence its other name, 双十一 (shuang shí yī, meaning “double eleven”) or 光棍节 (guānggùn jié, meaning “bare sticks holiday”). Calling it the bare sticks holiday supposedly comes from the fact that the elevens look like bare sticks and at the same time they apparently represent those single people without a family and progeny who are like tree branches not bearing fruit. Pretty depressing, if you ask me. Especially for a festival that celebrates peoples’ pride in their singleness.

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Singles’ Day is one of China’s more recent holidays, created at Nanjing University in only 1993, and spreading to other universities in Nanjing, then other cities, until it became popular all across China. Initially, it was an occasion for singles to party with their equally single friends or attend events meant to help them find their other half.

There are several explanations as to how and why Singles’ Day was brought to life, ranging from it being a matchmaking endeavor by a bunch of bachelors living in one of Nanjing University’s dorms to originating in the tragic love story of a Nanjing University student who lost his girlfriend to cancer. But no matter its origin, it is an observable fact that little more than a decade later, the holiday’s focus has shifted away from celebrating one’s singleness toward one of China’s favorite pastimes – shopping!

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The reason for this is probably that single people wanted a holiday that is all about gift-giving, too – just as couples have Valentine’s Day (or the Chinese equivalent, Qixi Festival). In this instance, the singletons are buying themselves gifts, seeing as they do not have a significant other to do it for them. This started after Singles’ Day became more and more well known in different parts of the country in the late 1990s. Then, for November 11th, 2011 (11-11-11, called “Singles’ Day of the Century” by marketers and the media), shopping malls both on- and offline seized the opportunity to tout their products. On the forefront of beneficiaries were Alibaba group’s online giants Taobao and Tmall. After continued success in 2012, Alibaba even registered the term 双十一 (shuang shí yī, meaning “double eleven”) as a trademark and has been threatening legal action against those using it ever since.

The sheer number of transactions as well as the price of goods sold on this single day (pun intended) is mindboggling. Those of you from the US are used to huge amounts of money spent on certain dates, as Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are when all of the United States hits the stores at the same time. But even the value of the goods sold on all these days combined does not even come close to the wares changing owners on Double 11.

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While in 2011, when the shopping frenzy was still in its infancy, Double 11 transactions where on the same level with Cyber Monday sales, they were already more than double these figures in 2012. And by 2013, transactions on that one day had by far outstripped sales of all 3 American shopping feasts combined. Also, the pace is quite different when dealing with Chinese shoppers. Promotional activities often start quite a bit earlier than November 11th itself – i.e. stores give out hóng bǎo (红包, literally red packet, which are used for gifting money) and coupons beforehand, to be used on 11-11 only. So Chinese customers gather their vouchers, their red envelopes, fill their online shopping carts to the brim and patiently wait for the clock to strike midnight to click. And buy. And buy. And buy some more. This is how in 2015, Tmall managed to sell 1 billion yuans’ (about 157 million USD) worth of goods within a whopping 1 minute and 12 seconds! And this number rose to 10 billion yuan (about 1.57 billion USD) after 12 minutes and 28 seconds. Not a bad revenue for less than a quarter of an hour’s work, if you ask me.

Why do the Chinese binge-shop like this on Double 11, you ask? The price slashes are beyond impressive: many items are offered at unbelievable discounts – you can find articles at 10% of their original retail prices! Important side note: in China, discounts are indicated differently. Where in the West, you will have 15% off, for instance, the Chinese will mark the same item marked 8.5折 (zhé in Pinyin), meaning that the article is sold at 85% of the original price. So no need to get excited about 9折 so much, but if you find something marked 1.5折 or even 1折, start celebrating!

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To get ready for this year’s shopping extravaganza, make sure you are all set. In case you do not have a Taobao account (Tmall is a part of the Taobao universe, with an established Taobao account, you will be able to purchase on Tmall as well), check out our previous article about setting one up.
So, whether you are single or blissfully (or even un-blissfully) paired up, go shop – online or off – this November 11th! And don’t forget to spread the word about Single’s Day with a mention of this article on WeChat, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and follow our blog!

Written by Julie Marx

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