For many years, Cyber Monday – the first Monday after US Thanksgiving – was the biggest online shopping day of the year, until it was surpassed by China’s Singles Day in 2012.

Now, it’s not even close.

China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba, which started marketing Singles Day in 2009 as an ‘anti-Valentine’s Day’ shopping binge (November 11 was chosen because of the connection between singles and the number ‘1’), says that the value of merchandise it has sold so far has already outstripped last year’s total of $9.3 billion.

This chart, from Reuters Graphics, shows how quickly the Chinese shopping extravaganza overtook its US counterpart.

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Daniel Zhang, Alibaba’s chief executive, had promised in a statement that “the whole world will witness the power of Chinese consumption”. The 2015 numbers are indeed staggering.

  • Last year, Chinese consumers spent 1 billion yuan, around $150 million, in three minutes. This year, they spent five times that amount in five minutes and 45 seconds, according to Alibaba.
  • It took 8 minutes for online shoppers to spend $1 billion, and 90 minutes to spend more than $5 billion.
  • Last year’s total spend, $9.3 billion, was surpassed before noon, with 12 hours of shopping still to go.
  • According to research firm IDC, this year’s sales could rise to as much as $13.8 billion, over 50% more than 2014.
  • JD.com, Alibaba’s chief rival, does not provide sales figures on the day but has said it has also shattered last year’s full-day total.
  • When Singles Day launched in 2009, it offered products from just 27 brands. This year, more than 6 million products from over 40,000 merchants were on offer.

This is despite sluggish growth in China, which slowed to 6.9% in the third quarter, the weakest since the global financial crisis. 

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One way in which China hopes to reverse this trend is by attracting more foreign retailers to the country. Alibaba, for example, is about to open its third US office in New York (the others are in Washington and San Francisco). 

“This year’s event is more global with international players joining in. Alibaba aims to both attract more international players selling products to China and the domestic players to expand to the overseas markets,” Fangting Sun, a senior research analyst with Euromonitor, told Bloomberg.

With over 360 million online shoppers (compared to 198 million in the US), an e-commerce market on track to break through the $1 trillion mark in 2017, and a middle class that has grown from 157 million a decade ago to over 520 million today, what started as a minor Chinese holiday could soon become a global phenomenon. 

Author: Ross Chainey, Digital Media Specialist, World Economic Forum

Image: Employees work at a sorting centre of Zhongtong (ZTO) Express ahead of the Singles Day shopping festival, Chaoyang District, Beijing, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee