Singles’ Day kicked off Wednesday in Asia and is expected to rake in significant profits for online retailer Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
That is good news for the e-commerce giant, which lost $76bn of its market value last week after the Chinese government suspended the much-anticipated IPO of Alibaba’s financial arm, Ant Group.
But what is the backstory behind the festival known as “Double Eleven,” and why do people celebrate it by buying tonnes of stuff? Here is what you need to know.
First of all, what does ‘Double Eleven’ have to do with single people?
The festival’s name is tied to the date – November 11 – but 11/11 also looks like four single people standing in a line. And the pronunciation of all of those elevens in Mandarin sounds similar to an idiom that means “a whole lifetime” or “all my life.” Cue the sappy music.
That is a little gentler than the day’s alternate name, “Guang Gun Jie” (“Bare Sticks Day”) which is a play on the numbers themselves and the idea that single people are lonely sticks that do not add to the family tree. Ouch.
Yikes. So why do single people get their own day?
Come on, they have bought enough wedding presents for their married friends over the years, so why not?! But in all seriousness, the story goes that Singles’ Day was started by four bachelors at Nanjing University in 1993 as a kind of protest against Valentine’s Day in China’s traditionally marriage-obsessed culture.
Is it for all the single ladies, too?
Feminists have criticised how traditional Chinese society views single women. “The Chinese girl was brought up, then as now, with matrimony in view as her goal,” Confucius wrote, and the unmarried are sometimes branded as “sheng nu” (“leftover women”) and looked down upon if they were not wives and mothers. For that reason, some see Singles’ Day as deeply sexist – even if it has turned into an online shopping blitz, Racked reported.
Complicated. So how is Singles’ Day celebrated?
Lots of ways. It is sometimes an excuse for single friends to get together and party – or try out matchmaking and set themselves up with dates.
It is also an auspicious day to do something decidedly anti-single, like have a wedding. In fact, 4,000 couples applied to tie the knot in Beijing on the ultimate Singles’ Day of November 11, 2011 – five times more than the city’s average daily weddings, the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported.
Cool. My wedding invite must have gotten lost in the mail. Bring on the shopping!
Since Alibaba capitalised on the trend in 2009, Singles’ Day has also been about shopping ’til you drop.
Last year, the company hit $38.3bn in gross merchandise volume, shattering its previous Singles’ Day sales records. In fact, Singles’ Day sales hit 84 billion yuan ($12bn) within the first hour in 2019. All those single people were definitely stocking up – and plenty of their married friends were, too.
What about this year?
Alibaba is hoping wealthy Chinese consumers will be eager to spend despite the pandemic, searching for luxury goods online that they might have bought on trips abroad before COVID-19 travel restrictions hit.
Alibaba is also introducing two million new products – double the amount from last year – Reuters reported.
So will the pandemic boost or hurt sales?
Online retailers have generally fared well as shoppers have been stuck at home clicking their way to some semblance of normalcy, although COVID-19 has caused widespread unemployment around the globe, which definitely slows the shopping.
But like Amazon, which moved its Prime Days to October and got a “Christmas creep” jump on holiday shoppers, Alibaba also held early discount days from November 1 to November 3 and sales from all 11 days will factor into its gross merchandise volume totals. It is betting those 11 days will mingle for a profitable Singles’ Day.