by Editorial Team
November 13, 2019

What is the annual retail event that outpaces US online sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined? The answer is Singles’ Day. This year’s shopping extravaganza saw an astonishing $38.4 billion in total sales – easily exceeding last year’s record $30.7 billion haul. Find out how this event is set to grow and expand with the help of retail innovation.

Across most of the Western world, we’re familiar with Black Friday, marking the start of the US holiday shopping season, where shoppers pour into retailers to grab great deals among a bonanza of discounts. More recently, the concept of Cyber Monday has also started gaining traction, taking place on the following Monday to Black Friday, and giving online shoppers a chance to enjoy more great discounts.

You may be surprised that the even bigger e-commerce event, mainly confined to China, Singles’ Day, sees online retail volumes that double the combined volumes of Black Friday and Cyber Monday! This ‘Asian Dragon’ event of e-commerce takes place on the 11th of November every year.

In the 1990s, Singles’ Day was a low-key event, a fairly ironic celebration for young, busy Chinese students and professionals, as a counter-culture rejection of the sugary-sweet holidays for couples and families. Even its date – 11.11 – was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Chinese saying “bare branches”: slang for Chinese bachelors, but also because the number “1” resembles an individual who is not in a partnership.

Singles' Day or Guanggun Jie (Chinese: 光棍节), today one of the biggest shopping events worldwide, literally means "Single Sticks' Holiday" [Source: Wikipedia]

Singles’ Day or Guanggun Jie (Chinese: 光棍节), today one of the biggest shopping events worldwide, literally means “Single Sticks’ Holiday” [Source: Wikipedia]

But in 2009, then Alibaba’s subsidiary Taobao COO Daniel Zhang (who today is Alibaba’s CEO and Chairman, having succeeded founder Jack Ma) jumped on Singles’ Day as an opportunity to ignite China’s nascent e-commerce landscape and draw people to the company’s new shopping platform, T-Mall.

In its first year, 27 brands participated, but it struck a chord with consumers, and started growing in scope year after year. Singles’ Day has become a catalyst for transformation in the way Chinese consumers search, choose and buy their products.

Singles’ Day – a shopping event that made e-commerce more successful and efficient

The idea was simple: a little “retail therapy” can go a long way to dispel any feelings of loneliness for those still searching for their soulmate, as the world gears up for holiday season with loved ones. Singles’ Day reminded everybody that they don’t need to wait for someone to buy them that big, exciting gift – they can get it for themselves. Since everyone else is joining in, shoppers are absolved of any ‘post-splurge’ guilt that may creep up!

Just how big is the event? In 2019, Alibaba broke the Singles’ Day record with more than $38 billion in sales over the world’s largest 24-hour shopping event. Alibaba Group also netted its first $1 billion in sales in just 68 seconds, and the first $10 billion in half an hour. This places Alibaba firmly on the map as one of the world’s retail powerhouses.

Singles’ Day has morphed into a broader affair – pulling in many of the world’s major brands as they vie for Chinese consumers’ attention. Alibaba kicked off this year’s sales with a live performance by Taylor Swift, followed by live-streamed marketing of over 1,000 brands.

The ‘Asian Dragon’ is spreading beyond its Chinese origin, as it starts to gain traction in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and across much of Southeast Asia.

Fittingly, it’s undergoing a total re-imagination: from Singles’ Day to the “11.11 Global Shopping Festival,” renamed by Alibaba in 2015.

Source: AliExpress website

Providing a glimpse into the shopping experience of the future

Other than the sheer scale of the event, just why is Singles’ Day such a significant day for merchants worldwide?

Firstly, it’s not all about shipping more and more products at irresistible prices. It has spurred new thinking in the retail sector, as savvy marketing professionals create engaging campaigns that drive sales. For example, live streaming is quickly gaining momentum in China and is having a notable impact on consumer shopping habits. Only 16% of consumers are not planning to make their purchases through live streaming in this year’s sale.

These campaigns increase brand affinity and draw customers into exciting new experiences. New location-based mobile services, virtual reality apps and smart mirrors help create real-life shopping scenarios that draw consumers even closer to a product. This contributes to the rise of ‘shoppertainment’ – which means the merging of entertainment and shopping that characterizes livestreaming in China, and increasingly, Southeast Asia.

Imagine fashion shows where consumers can instantly ‘try out’ and buy the latest outfits for the season, as they are paraded down the runway; or fun-filled augmented reality games (think ‘Pokemon Go!’) that give gamers unique opportunities to unearth great shopping deals hidden within the game. This originally ironic event now gives us a glimpse into the shopping experience of the future.

As Alibaba notes in its video documenting the rise of 11.11, it has “become like the Olympics or the Super Bowl – a must-do event for marketers, where brands pulled out all the stops to wow Chinese consumers.”

11.11 taps into popular culture in interesting new ways, with national television galas and campaigns defining the current pop-culture trends, drawing big-name global celebrities like Taylor Swift, who headlined the 2019 gala, and Kim Kardashian who joined a livestream on Tmall announcing the launch of her new fragrance brand.

Source: Tmall / Alibaba

And just how will they keep 11.11 on top of the world?

Alibaba and its Chinese peers will certainly have to continue innovating. Firstly, the day is now a 48-hour shopping extravaganza and is expanding its portfolio to include new industries. Last year the automobile and hotel industry were included, and this year Alibaba has expanded into new areas from entertainment to offline services to real estate, which saw an increase in sales and promotions.

There were also more varied and complex promotion schemes during this year’s event. Some of the common strategies used include flash sales, cash back, free shipping and paying by installments.

The real story of 11.11 – setting the tone for shopping innovation

Alibaba will also continue on its mission of fluidly connecting the worlds of online and offline retail – a strategy it terms “new retail” – with concepts like its chain of grocery stores called Hema, where users can go in and shop, with payments automatically processed by their phone. This kind of ‘checkout-less’ retail experience is already at the top of mind for payment companies, that are combining advanced camera systems with artificial intelligence, big data, and payment processing platforms to create an invisible payment experience, like Wirecard’s Grab&Go store.

If anything, that’s the truly amazing story of 11.11. It’s not so much about the record-breaking sales volumes or its expansion around the world, but about the way that it spurs new innovations and gets every player in the ecosystem thinking in a new way. It’s what Alibaba’s Founder and former Chairman Jack Ma meant when he said “I never think this is the day for selling products; this is the day we exchange ideas, innovation, invention, and creation.”

It seems that 11.11 will continue setting the tone for shopping innovation – both online and offline – in the coming years.