Lonely at the top: Alibaba's platforms had a massive Singles' Day this year, selling $9 billion in goods throughout the day and more than $1 billion in a 17-minute period. 

Lovebirds have Valentine’s Day, but some years ago, a few Chinese netizens realized no holiday had been instituted to celebrate those who suffer in solitude. To right this perceived injustice, they created “Singles’ Day,” to be held on 1111 every year. When the “Singles’ Day of the Century” came along on 11-11-11, online retailers piled on, targeting consumers looking to console themselves with good gifts. 

Taobao and Tmall, two of the largest e-commerce platforms in China (both owned by Alibaba), were the driving force in solidifying the consumer-driven holiday. In 2009, the company first initiated large sales for a wide range of products on these two websites. In the following years, not only major e-commerce firms including 360-buy, VANCL and Jumei, but also big department stores and small shops throughout China jumped on the bandwagon.  

Many Chinese consumers, not just singles, have responded with unprecedented enthusiasm. For many, it is an opportunity to buy stuff at discounted prices; but for some, it’s a collective shopping spree is simply exciting. Since most items on these websites are on sale in limited quantities within a confined period of time, customers have to wait in front of their computers and click the “buy” button fast. Carrie, a new mom working for a bank in Beijing, felt upset that the suit she wanted to buy for her baby was sold out only 43 seconds after the midnight sale started. Others who successfully bought the products for low prices can enjoy both the thrill of the item itself and the pleasure of victory. 

According to the official Weibo account of Alibaba, its online platforms reached sales volume of 12.2 billion RMB (equivalent of $2 billion) within the first hour of 1111 in 2014. In the last six years, Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sales have grown exponentially. By the end of Nov. 11, 2014, Alibaba had a record of 278 million orders worth 57.1 billion RMB ($9.3 billion), almost three times the combined online sales of 2013 Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the U.S (see graphic). 

The huge number of online orders have resulted in big problems for logistics companies, as boxes piled up like mountains in their warehouses. In the last a couple of years, there were serious delays of 1111 deliveries, with some customers complaining about receiving their purchases three or four weeks later than promised. Such a delay is expected again this year because of the ever higher order numbers and traffic limitations imposed due to the APEC summit being held in Beijing

Besides dissatisfaction about delivery, consumers have other concerns. Dawn, a journalist with Xinhua News agency, who is also a frequent online shopper on Taobao, does not have much interest in the 1111 shopping festival. As she discovered, “There aren’t really many good deals on Singles’ Day. Many online stores raise the original price before the sale, sometimes twice or three times higher than it should be. Even if you get 80 percent off, you would still be paying a lot.” This doubt is shared by her friends Jiarui and Siyuan, who are among those who haven’t gone crazy for the deals. 

“A friend of mine recommended a pan to me and said she paid 249 yuan for it earlier this year. When I tried to buy it on 1111, I found the original price was listed as 1,299, and it was on sale for 299. That’s crazy! But I bought it anyway because I needed it,” Siyuan told me. 

“The dishonest pricing tricks should be regulated,” Jiarui complained. Such concerns have caught the attention of the authorities, as the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) warned 10 of China’s biggest e-commerce firms not to engage in activities like artificially jacking up prices before the event so they could claim huge price slashes. A week before 1111, SAIC announced a new regulation banning advertisement with price comparison between websites and between online and offline stores.

Single’s Day has become a nationwide business carnival, starting as an Internet fad. Will this new tradition continue to be celebrated in future? A joint effort by consumers, business and regulators is needed to keep this business phenomenon healthy and prosperous. 

Jingting Liu is a doctoral candidate at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business – Center of International Business Education and Research in Atlanta. Before coming to Atlanta six months ago, she lived in Beijing and Chongqing, China. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degree from Beijing Language and Culture University in International Politics and Economics. She had previous work experience in the Chinese entertainment industry as a talent manger and also taught Chinese language and culture at the Confucius Institute at Georgia State University. She may be reached by email at jingting.a.liu@gmail.com.

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