Singles’ Day Is Huge in China. Could It Come Here?

The biggest business news this week was the record-setting amount Chinese consumers spent on Nov. 11, locally known as Singles’ Day. And what was particularly notable is that, until this week, most Americans had never even heard of it.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant credited with sparking the frenzy, reports local consumers spent $9.3 billion through its sites during the annual pseudo holiday, up from last year’s $5.3 billion—which means it just had the biggest e-commerce day anywhere, ever. In the day’s first 17 minutes, Alibaba sold $1 billion in merchandise. In its first hour, $2 billion. 

Some called Singles’ Day “a Hallmark holiday on steroids,” but it wasn’t dreamed up by Alibaba and would probably be far less potent if it was. The annual event—also called Bare Sticks Day (local slang for bachelors)—has been traced to Chinese college students in the 1990s, who conceived it as a tongue-in-cheek celebration of unwedded bliss. Nov. 11 was chosen because it’s 11-11—a date composed of all ones. As with so many things that go viral, there was a serious, even poignant idea underlying it: With men outnumbering women in China, some men were resigning themselves to remaining single forever. And as the Chinese single population grew, so did the day. A whole list of idiosyncratic 11-11 traditions sprung up, particularly gift-gifting—to a crush, to a single friend, or to oneself.

Business schools will likely be studying for decades how Singles’ Day mushroomed from a nerdy in-joke to the world’s biggest retail orgy. When Alibaba first jumped onboard the annual anti–Valentine’s Day in 2009, it was the only e-tailer promoting an 11-11 sale. (Like eBay, the site doesn’t sell anything, but simply provides a platform.) The day “had some cachet with China’s young, urban Internet users, who were Alibaba’s primary customers,” writes TechInAsia. And as they stocked up on 11-11 gifts—some specific to the day, like boyfriend body pillows—the site attracted more brands and urged them to offer deeper discounts, which drew more customers. And from there it just spiraled: While Alibaba’s first 11-11 sale featured 27 sellers, this year it featured 27,000, and there is now a serious issue ensuring orders get delivered. The site even owns the Singles’ Day trademark, which, says an analyst, is like Wal-Mart winning the rights to Valentine’s Day.   

The next step, its CEO says, is transforming Singles’ Day into a “global shopping event.” Clearly, the United States, the largest market in the world, would be a prime target. The site’s already doing some preliminary marketing here, including spotlighting eight participating jewelry brands on a Times Square billboard.

A Businessweek article, however, argues this singular sensation will never take off on these shores. First, it clashes with our calendar: Nov. 11 is already set aside for Veterans Day, and it comes close enough to Christmas that consumers are watching their budgets, but not close enough that they are ready to buy. 

But more importantly, Alibaba hitched its wagon to an organic tradition that already existed, much like De Beers was able to link diamonds with engagements. But there is no Singles’ Day here, at least not one that people care about. (There is something called Singles Awareness Day, which takes place on Feb. 15, the day after Valentine’s Day.)  If you force Singles’ Day, cynical consumers could consign it to the graveyard of trying-too-hard Hallmark holidays like Boss’s Day.

Still, what is perhaps most powerful about Singles’ Day is it took a disregarded and sometimes disparaged group and built a day around it. Which, yes, could happen here.

Marriage rates are sinking: Only about 50 percent of U.S. adults are married, a record low. (1960 number: 72 percent.) This is bad news for our business, which tends to cater to the engaged, married, or otherwise paired up (although De Beers executives say second-time-arounds spend more on rings).

The trade has made only scattershot attempts to reach out to unattached consumers, such as the Ah ring for single women and De Beers’ right-hand ring campaign. But jewelers need to think about how to respond to a changing, less traditional customer base. Alibaba was able to surf the wave. Can we? 

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JCK News Director