Tech by VICE

‘Singles Day’ Was Completely Taken Over by China’s Biggest Online Retailer

$9.3 billion transaction, 400,000,000 shipments, and growing.

by Yiwei Tian
Nov 11 2015, 8:43pm

A woman wearing a mask walks past a TV screen showing real-time sales figures of e-commerce giant Alibaba, on the "Singles' Day" online shopping festival, outside a shopping mall in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Shoppers spend more than $9 billion in the first 12 hours during the country's biggest online shopping holiday, expected to smash last year's figure to set a record for a single day of sales. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Before 2009, 11/11 was just a simple silly day on which Chinese singles cheered for their singleness and conveyed a slight "disdain" and jealousy toward those who were married or in relationship, or whoever got to celebrate a lovey-dovey Valentine's day.

The new Chinese single generation feels pressured to invent a "holiday"—known as Guang Gun Jie, or Singles Day in English—to celebrate together with their single fellows. Some choose to laugh, joke, and cheer for still being single, while others are hoping to get rid of the title exactly the same day by trying to seek a potential boy/girl friend in the singles community.

Overall, it is just really a merry day that single young Chinese join in together for camaraderie.

Then Alibaba and its shopping website Taobao came along.

The Chinese megacorporation, which runs the largest online retailer in the country, added a commercial dimension to the game. Not that no one went shopping on Singles Day—shopping is also a very important part of a perfect holiday for most young Chinese—Alibaba just took it to a whole new level. It turned the day into a shopping cult for the entire country.

For the first time ever on November 11, 2009, with the help of news media, millions of the Taobao business owners, and the social networking power of Weibo/WeChat, Taobao smartly captured everyone's attention for its big Singles Day sale event. Items on the site that are already much cheaper than the market price were labeled "50 percent off," "11/11 only," and "free shipping."

It was a huge hit. Last year, Taobao did nearly $9.3 billion in sales on Singles Day, far more than the $1.3 billion sold online for Black Friday.

More than 270 countries participated, creating around 400,000,000 shipments. The entire country was turned by Alibaba into a big profit-generating machine. Small business owners were sent to the hospital due to over-working for the event, and parcel delivery workers try to quit or otherwise avoid working this time frame. That's not to mention the chaotic traffic jams in the shipping business across China.

As of 2014, China has a population base that is four times larger than the United States. The population that has access to the internet, however, is only about half of China. Still, that's more than double the entire population in the United States. The internet-unconnected Chinese public are primarily located in the southern-western unindustrialized areas, which are still struggling with basic economic constructions. Yet the rural PC users are also quickly getting online thanks to the installment of telecommunication infrastructure as the result of both government policy and market-driven economic factors. In other words, next year's Singles Day sale will likely be even bigger, as will the one after that.

Yet, among the giant consumer base, the rural public needs a site like Taobao for their basic consumption needs. Despite the recent promising economic growth and improving social landscapes, as pointed out in Alibaba's annual review, China at this particular stage is still facing enormous challenges. Unevenly distributed industries and population issues are still at forefront. The amount of resources not being efficiently utilized is still mind-boggling. Indeed, Taobao seems becomes an only way out for those locating in the outlying areas that often times are excluded from the picture. For this group of rural poor, savings on Singles Day may be a godsend.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, the biggest IPO ever to debut on the New York stock exchange, is more interested in the growing middle class Chinese, however. This group holds more dispensable income than ever before. Indeed, middle class Chinese seem to be the most promising demographic for retailers that want to grow big and prosper in the modern China.

"China's been poor for so many years, we put our money in the bank," Ma said at the eighth US-China Internet Industry Forum in Seattle in September. "You guys [meaning Americans] know how to spend tomorrow's money or other people's money."

It seems that Ma is teaching Chinese how to spend money.