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What you need to know about China’s Singles’ Day, the world’s largest online shopping festival

Held on November 11 every year, Singles’ Day in China is the world’s largest online shopping festival

Photo: Reuters

/NOVOSTIVL/ On November 11 last year, online shoppers in China spent a whopping 410 billion yuan (US$60.4 billion) in 24 hours – double what Amazon generates in an entire month, according to a report by consulting firm Bain & Company on Tuesday.

The annual shopping spree in China, called Singles’ Day, is the world’s largest online shopping festival and seen by many investors as a proxy for consumer spending in China as well as an important barometer for economic health. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic hitting many industries and dragging global economies down, the stakes are particularly high for retailers.

Here’s what you need to know about the annual shopping extravaganza that is coming up soon.

How did Singles’ Day start?

Written numerically as 11/11, November 11 looks like “bare branches”, a Chinese expression for the single and unattached.

In the 1990s, some Chinese university students decided they would celebrate their singlehood on this date, which they dubbed Singles’ Day or Double 11.

This became seen as an anti-Valentine’s Day of sorts, and many of China’s singles began splurging on themselves on the day as a way to rebel against social pressure to be in a relationship.

But major Chinese e-commerce sites only began really capitalising on the day after Alibaba Group Holding – the Post’s parent company – first branded it as an annual shopping festival in 2009, offering discounts of at least 50 per cent and free nationwide shipping on both of its e-commerce platforms at that time, Taobao and Taobao Mall (now known as Tmall).

Only 27 brands took part in this first event, but by last year – a decade after it first launched – participation had ballooned to more than 200,000 brands from 78 countries and regions, helping lift Alibaba to a Singles‘ Day record of 268.4 billion yuan.

While Singles’ Day as an online shopping festival was started by Alibaba, other major platforms like JD.com and Pinduoduo soon jumped on the bandwagon with their own Double 11 events, offering everything from consumer electronics to cars and even apartments at a discount.

What’s new this year?

Alibaba will have two sales windows this year: from November 1 to 3 as well as the whole day on November 11.

According to the Hangzhou-based tech giant, the additional sales window is to provide opportunities for new brands and small businesses to participate. There will be more than 2 million new products this year, doubling the amount from last year, the company said.

Live-streaming is expected to take centre stage at this year’s Singles’ Day celebrations. Top influencers such as Li Jiaqi and Viya Huang will make appearances, while more than 400 company executives and 300 celebrities will also hold individual live-streaming sessions on Taobao Live featuring products ranging from cosmetics, electronics, to cars and houses, Alibaba said.

Amid an e-commerce boom resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Singles’ Day is expected to have an even bigger global reach than previous years. More than 2,600 new international brands will be offering promotions on the Tmall Global platform, according to Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company.

The company’s logistics arm Cainiao will charter around 700 flights for the shopping festival and more than 50 per cent of this year’s cross-border parcels are expected to be delivered twice as fast as its usual speed, the company said.

Other e-commerce platforms such as JD.com, Suning.com, Vipshop and NetEase’s Yanxuan, as well as short video platforms Douyin and Kuaishou have all announced plans to participate in the November shopping festival this year.

JD Retail chief executive Xu Lei, the chief executive of JD Retail appeared on Roast Convention, a Chinese version of the American comedy series Comedy Central Roast, last week to promote this year’s JD Singles’ Day event. The show puts a well-known figure on stage to be insulted by a panel of comedians and celebrities.

Social e-commerce site Pinduoduo, the third-largest Chinese e-commerce player, has also announced a partnership this year with Hunan TV, one of the country’s biggest broadcasters, to give away 1 billion yuan in red packets among other promotional activities for the TV station’s annual Singles’ Day Gala on November 10.

Ahead of this year’s Singles’ Day, ByteDance-owned short video app Douyin has also moved to build a closed-loop for its e-commerce business and monetise its popular live-streaming platform, while loosening ties with third-party e-commerce platforms such as JD.com and Alibaba’s Taobao.

What about all the other shopping festivals in China?

While Singles’ Day is still considered the largest online shopping festival in China and the world, other major Chinese e-commerce players also have their own shopping festivals named after specific dates.

Alibaba rival JD.com started its annual sales gala, the 618 midyear shopping festival on June 18, in 2004 to celebrate its anniversary. Like Singles’ Day, this has expanded beyond the platform and turned into a countrywide shopping spree on multiple platforms, including Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall as well as Pinduoduo.

At this year’s 618 festival, JD.com racked up 269.2 billion yuan in sales, up 33 per cent from a year ago. Transactions on Alibaba’s Tmall were up 100 per cent from a year ago during the first hour of business on June 18, according to the company.

Retailer Suning.com also has its own annual shopping festival 818, which falls on August 18 every year. The Nanjing-based company started as an air conditioner store in 1990 and created 818 to promote the sales of air conditioners in its early years. It has since grown into one of the company’s most important marketing events.

For this year’s 818 shopping festival, Suning.com partnered with Douyin for the latter to provide live-streamed branding and supply chain services. Its push for social e-commerce and further digitalisation of its offline stores appear to have paid off – a Suning.com spokeswoman said the company‘s online sales during the 818 shopping festival more than doubled this year compared to the previous year, although she did not disclose the exact numbers.

Kuaishou’s first November shopping gala this year will overlap with Singles’ Day but will have its own branding – the Kuaishou 116 shopping carnival will start on October 30 and last until November 11, with the most promotions available on November 6.

Tencent Holdings-backed Kuaishou is a relatively new entrant into live-streaming e-commerce, but has already announced ambitious targets that include plans to incubate 100,000 businesses and help them achieve 1 million yuan in annual sales in the coming year.

Source: SCMP

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