Geographies in Depth

This is what you need to know about Singles' Day

A general view of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in Guangdong province September 5, 2010, one day before a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of this special economic zone. China has to pursue political reform to safeguard its economic health, Premier Wen Jiabao said during a recent visit to the booming town of Shenzhen, the official Xinhua news agency reported.   REUTERS/Bobby Yip   (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS CITYSCAPE SOCIETY ANNIVERSARY) - GM1E6951FOE01

The event turns 10 years old this year. Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Christian Edwards
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  • Singles' Day, China's once-timid Valentine's Day repackaged as a 24-hour online retail blitz, is about to get bigger for Alibaba.
  • In just a few days' time, the world will meet the 10th edition of Alibaba's "Singles' Day" shopping extravaganza and the company says it expects to receive more than one billion orders.

It's capitalism's shiny new slim-lined version of Christmas, but with none of the gods and more of the goods. The event turns 10 years old in a matter of days.

Next Monday, as one generation meditates on the final shots of a distant war, another generation in another part of the world will be embracing the 10th edition of Alibaba's "Singles' Day."

It's a new kind of commercial extravaganza and the company that runs it says it expects to receive over one billion orders by the time it is done.

The occasion, China's once-timid Valentine's Day gone rogue, viral, off the reservation, and totally, madly, delightfully bananas.

Image: Statista

So what's all the fuss about?

The English name Singles' Day derives from guanggun jie (光棍节), but the date is now widely nicknamed shuang shiyi (双十一), or "Two 11," after the date, November 11. (or 11.11)

It's a special day, when China's ecommerce juggernauts atomize prices on anything and everything for a delightfully unhinged 24 hours.

This year, Alibaba, the power behind the festival's throne, is leaning in and stretching 24 hours into 48, and sending China's incredible shopping spree around the world.

The Hangzhou-based company's business-to-consumer platform Tmall promises to present some 180,000 Chinese and global brands for consumers' purchasing pleasure.

Already half a million items are available and rolling off e-shelves on Tmall's pre-sale sale.

In 2018, Alibaba says its Tmall Global platform has, one would suggest, a fairly comprehensive 3,700 categories of imported goods from 75 countries around the world.

Last year, the 9th version of the guang gun jie or Singles' Day shopping festival raked in $25.3 billion in a 24-hour online smorgasbord of unhinged expenditure.

Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma smiles as he poses with attendants after watching real-time data of transactions at Alibaba Group's 11.11 Global shopping festival in Beijing, China.
Image: Reuters.

Where did this all start?

The date.

The presentation or the suggestion of 11.11 has long been connected in China to four lonely or perhaps a group of solitary single figures, as well as four leafless or branchless trees.

The Chinese term guanggun literally means "bare branches" and refers specifically to single men — a quiet, and in many ways, potentially desperate issue in a country that has regulated birth for almost a generation, resulting in a demographic glut of boys — commonly known as the bare branches.

(That said, its also pretty tough for single ladies who push past the ripened age of 28 on their lonesome who are called 剩女 sheng nu or "leftover women.")

Black Friday on steroids

Singles' Day was widely rumoured to have been conceived by a socially awkward group of college dudes in an all-male dorm room at Nanjing University in the 1990s. The concept from there morphed into a nationwide bonding exercise for the socially isolated young singles. It took off thanks to China's over-abundance of young men.

In 2009, Alibaba founder Jack Ma seized on Singles' Day to deal with a lull in sales between October and Chinese New Year in late January.

Ma convinced around 30 merchants to lay on some discounts through the selling platform, Tmall. The event was an instant success.

Five years later, 27,000 merchants were on board and merrily slashing prices.

Ma, using targeted marketing and China's economic shift to domestic consumption to appeal to the country to take a moment to buy stuff online, helped make Singles' Day what it is today.

Have you read?

China was encouraged to stay in and buy. And they did.

For the first time last year, Alibaba surpassed $25 billion in revenue. By comparison, the Thanksgiving Thursday through Cyber Monday sales for 2017 added up to $14.5 billion.

Black Friday on steroids is merely a baby bunny in the terrifying headlights of what will be Singles' Day 2018.

The festival has seen phenomenal year-on-year growth.

Sales back in 2013 pretty much doubled 2012’s $3 billion haul. The next year, Singles' Day sales of over $9 billion first surged past the combined sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the first 90 minutes of November 11, 2015, Alibaba reported sales of $5 million.

And in 2016, Alibaba smashed records again, bringing in $5 billion in just the first 60 minutes of the festival, as Ma had hoped for.

Alibaba's final figure for last year — 168.3 billion yuan or $25.3 billion — was 40% higher than the previous figure and on-par with the nominal GDP of Estonia or Uganda, according to the World Trade Organization.

Image: Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch

An internet of many, many things

The logistical impact is difficult to reckon with, as almost a billion parcels were packed and posted.

This year, Alibaba is preparing for the rush by opening what is said to be the country’s biggest robotic warehouse.

Alibaba’s logistics affiliate Cainiao Network announced the new facility located in Wuxi, last month, to help cope with the ballooning demand, adding that it handled more than 810 million orders last year.

The new warehouse is positioned as an internet of things-powered, "robotic smart warehouse" with close to 700 automated vehicles.

"It was only five years ago that parcel orders surpassed 100 million for the first time," Cainiao Vice President Ben Wang said, rather wistfully.

Alibaba, which started out sensibly enough (and incredibly practically) as a one-stop online mall connecting buyers and suppliers, has since expanded to become an e-commerce blueprint, a monument to consumption, driven by its twin engines Taobao and Tmall.

As Alibaba has invested in China's growing digital innovation, the company has begun experimenting and delivering financial technologies, digital entertainment, cloud computing and on-demand local internet of things services.

With China successfully increasing online access and disposable incomes out of rural China, and as the state closes in on hosting a billion smartphone users (in no small part thanks to the notoriously cheap Huawei and Xiaomi devices on Shuang Shiyi), the parallel boom in ecommerce revenue has been thrilling.

In 2018, the global shopping phenomenon will be embraced across 400 cities, some 200,000 smart stores, and 100 of the mainland China's special economic zones.

Tmall will engage 180,000 Chinese and global brands. About 500,000 items will be available for preorder on Tmall from October 20. The Tmall Global platform will provide 3,700 categories of imported goods from 75 countries and regions.

In the months leading up to Singles Day, supermarket shelves from Ballarat to Brisbane get totally cleaned out of milk powders and baby formula, seen here in Alibaba's showroom, as local "daigou," or personal shoppers ramp up their sales.

China still boasts the highest activity during Singles' Day, but the idea is gaining traction in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Alibaba's partners range from Google to southeast Asian platforms like Lazada out of the Philippines as the company's New Retail Strategy, is aimed squarely at moving Singles' Day beyond China to international buyers.

Alibaba is aware that Southeast Asia alone will be an $88 billion-plus ecommerce market by 2025 — and the interest that Lazada and other regional e-commerce platforms are showing in the Singles’ Day sale is the shape of how ecommerce will mature in this region in the short-term.

In turn, the online retail giant hopes to smash last year’s record-breaking revenue of $25.3 billion especially given how the day falls on a Sunday this year, potentially making it more popular than ever with China's dedicated stay-at-home hoppers.

“This year marks the 10th anniversary of 11.11. On the back of China’s explosive digital transformation, the Festival’s astounding growth over the past decade has powered the steady growth of quality consumption sought by Chinese shoppers. The evolution also showcases the development of the Alibaba ecosystem over time expanding well beyond ecommerce,” Daniel Zhang, Alibaba Group CEO told a news conference in Beiijing to launch the 2018 event.

Buying begins at midnight on November 10 in Sydney, and from there, like some beautiful commercial butterfly, shuang shiyi will spread its wings and take off across the waiting retail world.

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