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Published on Dec 3, 2013 in Asia, China, Featured Articles, News

Singles Day in China

Photo from www.nytimes.com

Photo from www.nytimes.com

The words “singles day” evokes thoughts of a day dedicated to single men and women. And originally that was true. It was an unofficial holiday which occurred on November 11th, or 11.11, each year, acknowledging the loneliness of being single. Singles Day started only 20 years ago at Nanjing University when students selected this date because of the consecutive 1s, which they felt symbolized the “bare branches” of a tree – or being alone. As a result, it became a day when single men and women would go out with their friends and lament their unmarried status. The practice of singles reveling together on this date rapidly spread, in succeeding years, throughout the country.

However, Single’s Day began to become less associated with single men and women five years ago when Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce group, realized that singles could just as easily seek solace by buying e-commerce merchandise on November 11th. Alibaba decided to offer deep discounts and numerous promotions on that day, designed to attract, not only the nation’s singles, but also the country’s growing e-commerce consumers.

According to Sarah Mishkin of the Financial Times, on November 11th sales on Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce group, reached $3.1 billion by 1 PM, double what was sold the previous year in the US on Cyber Monday, the Monday following Thanksgiving. By midnight Alibaba’s numbers reached $5.7 billion.

Single’s Day reflects China’s rapidly growing e-commerce industry. Last year revenue from online sales in China reached $210 billion, second only to the US market’s $230 billion in online sales. This year Chinese consumers, according to Forrester Research, are expected to spend $290 billion online, surpassing the United States’ estimated $260 billion in online revenue.

According to the New York Times, on Single’s Day Alibaba reported 402 million unique visitors to its sites, more than a third of the adult population of China. Alibaba sent 152 million parcels of merchandise from that single day of e-commerce activity. Although Alibaba could probably have provided better examples, they indicated that 1.6 million bras, which they helpfully noted was three times the height of Mount Everest, were sold on that day along with 2 million pairs of underpants, which they also helpfully explained would stretch 1,800 miles – and all sold before lunch!

In addition to Alibaba, many other e-commerce sites experienced enormous activity, such as 55tuan.com, a Groupon-style site which, among other items, offered bride-hunting trips to Vietnam to “find true love.” According to the New York Times, global firms such as Nike, Adidas, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and Samsung offer promotions on Single’s Day and look on this day as a way to promote their companies brands to areas of China where their merchandise is unable to be carried in brick-and-mortar stores. Ogilvy Public Relations estimates that some of their clients generate as much as 15 to 30 percent of their annual sales on Single’s Day.

China’s e-commerce market is quickly surpassing that of the US. According to McKinsey’s forecasts, China’s online shopping is expected to reach $420 billion to $650 billion by 2020. Bain, a global consulting firm, expects online shopping in China to grow at an annual rate of 32 percent between this year and 2015. One of the reasons for this meteoric growth is that internet access in China is still growing. Only 31 percent of households in China have internet access and 21 percent have mobile internet access. As smartphones become more affordable, that access will grow. In addition, many people in China still live in small cities and have limited access to goods, especially those that are foreign brands. Online access is a way for them to obtain merchandise that was previously unavailable in their regions.

Single’s Day may have started as a day for singles to lament or celebrate their singleness but today, largely due to Alibaba, Single’s Day is recognized as the world’s largest online shopping day.

Alan Refkin

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