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From the ground up

As we approach the 2017 holiday season, many of us brace for the impact of brain-washing carols and the mania of Christmas shopping.

Perhaps the day that is most synonymous with shopping sprees is the massive phenomenon known as Black Friday. In the Western hemisphere, this occasion represents a total of $3.34 billion in GMV (Gross Merchandise Value) spent by hundreds of millions of shoppers, scouring for the best deals.

Beyond annual American shopping holidays like Black Friday or Boxing Day, over in the Eastern hemisphere, one Chinese holiday is putting up some even bigger numbers. November 11th, also known as “Single’s Day, or 11.11, or Guanggun Jie, actually holds the undisputed title for any e-commerce record on the planet, representing a whopping $17.8 billion in GMV within 24 hours of 2016, and it’s getting bigger and bigger every year.

So What is Single’s Day or 11.11?

Back in the 1990s, the cultural significance of November 11th in China was meant to be sort of an “anti-Valentine’s Day” for single students to collectively revel in loneliness and celebrate being single. Written numerically, 11.11 is also a visual expression for single men and women.

That all changed in 2009, when Alibaba CFO at the time Zhang Yong (Yong is now the CEO of Alibaba, while Chinese philanthropist Jack Ma remains the founder and executive chairman) advertised a 50% discount campaign for Alibaba-owned e-marketplace Taobao, creating this partnered offer with only 27 merchants. Alibaba has since masterfully crafted a brand message that encourages shoppers to treat themselves by consuming, regardless of their relationship status.

What resulted was probably bigger than many could have ever imagined, and the years following helped solidify Alibaba’s dominance in e-commerce, thanks to a key business conglomerate. Internet provider Tencent owns mobile message app Wechat, while Chinese company Baidu monopolised the search engine category, creating the infamous Chinese internet trio. The group is colloquially named BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), each having a solid share in the internet sector, and each benefitting from the rise of Single’s Day in their own way.

Just How Big is 11.11?

In a few short years, 11.11 grew into the planet’s biggest online shopping event; an omni-channel festival, encompassing both offline and online, as well as merchants and shoppers alike, giving rise to the mother of all shopping phenomena. In 2012, Alibaba officially trademarked “11.11”, solidifying the commercial importance of the day.

To hold the undisputed title of a single global largest e-commerce shopping day is no easy feat, so we’ve also created some infographics to help readers visualize.

11.11 vs. Black Friday

To add some perspective; within 20 seconds, about the same time Usain bolt runs a world record 200m dash in 19.19 seconds, $15 million worth of transactions have already occurred. These transactions derive from consumers who had filled their online shopping carts in the weeks leading up to the sale, then clicking “Buy” right at midnight.

Within 24 hours of 2016’s event, total sales reached $17.79 billion by the end of the day (which is bigger than Brazil’s e-commerce sales in one year). With nearly $18 billion, you could buy quite a few things, including 18 Supremes.

So who participates in 11.11?

But 11.11 is hardly just a Chinese affair. In fact, businesses from 235 countries routinely participate in the occasion, including Japan and the United States, which are two of the biggest countries getting involved in the Chinese affair. Familiar US and European companies have been quick to hop on the bandwagon of opportunity.

Marking a first for the brand, Jordan aptly tailored a release for the holiday, trying to secure a share of the funds being exchanged. Originally known as the “Chinese Single’s Day”, the Air Jordan 13 “What is Love” pack consisted of men’s and women’s Air Jordan 13s, which are currently available on StockX.

Constituting another big example of international cooperation, Macy’s also worked with Alibaba to enable Chinese consumers to buy directly from their store in New York via a virtual reality tool.

Parties & Celebrity Endorsements

Recently, Alibaba also hosted pre-events leading up to the event, including a massive countdown gala to kick off the affair, such as the recent 2016 Tmall 11.11 Global Shopping Festival gala in held Shenzhen, Guangdong province, which was attended by A-list celebrities and athletes like Kobe Bryant (a good friend of Jack Ma) Scarlett Johansson, the Beckhams and One Republic. Thousands of brands and e-retailers took part in the event, setting up over 100,000 “smart stores” which featured retail experiences ranging from virtual fitting rooms and guided shopping tours.

Duncan Clark, chairman and MD of the business advisory BDA China, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that the gala was a clever merging of Alibaba’s focuses on entertainment and shopping.

“In China, shopping is entertainment,” Clark said. “A lot of people [in inland cities] are tuning in to live broadcasts for products. Hundreds of thousands of people follow internet celebrities who use these platforms to sell.”

Implications

Given the insane amount of internet traffic, product volume, and all the working cogs that make Single’s Day possible, a highly reliable infrastructure is required, which must be supported by efficient and scaleable electronic payment and logistics services. To solve these problems, Alibaba also gave birth to two successful sister companies, Alipay (China’s PayPal equivalent, which calculated 120,000 transactions per second on 11.11) and Cainao (a logistics information platform which processed 657 million orders on 11.11). Together, Alibaba filled in the missing pieces and created an once-in-a-lifetime e-commerce ecosystem, rooted deeply within the second largest economy in the world.

However, economic success usually comes with a cost, especially when it comes to our environment, experts say. Logistics firms can process up to one billion packages from Single’s Day, and naturally these packages require boxes, tape, bubble wrap and a sheerly massive amount of plastic packaging.

Greenpeace once described Single’s Day as “a disaster for our pockets, and the planet,” estimating that only 20% of the packages are recycled or reused.

Perhaps the deals are too hard to resist, or perhaps due to buyer’s remorse, its been said that up to 30% of purchases are returned, thanks to Alibaba’s seven-day “no questions asked” return policy. Widespread presence of counterfeit goods online causes further returns, as bootleg products travel back to the merchants.

Conclusion

Single’s Day is China’s own celebration of consumerism – a time for the country’s urban youth and rising middle class to enjoy the fruits of the nation’s economic growth. However, the staggering sales figures and ostentatious activation events do fail to mask the fact that unlike traditional holidays, 11.11 doesn’t come with a whole lot of history or cultural significance. The holiday is arguably just an excuse, created by companies, to encourage consumerism. When you look past the name – Single’s Day, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, perhaps they aren’t so different after all.

For a deeper look at e-commerce and fashion in China, here’s how many fake YEEZYs are sold on China’s biggest e-market.

  • Main & Featured Image: StockX
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