This Online Deal Day Blows Cyber Monday Out Of The Water

Illustrated by Marina Esmeraldo.
What started as a promotion for lonely singles has blown up into one of the world's biggest shopping days.
UPDATE: Double 11 spending this year hit a record-breaking $10 billion just 14 hours into the one-day shopping bonanza, according to the BBC. It only took 8 minutes for spending to cross the $1 billion mark, Alibaba, the e-commerce giant behind the promotion, reported. This story was originally published on November 10, 2015.

Lizzy Zheng is making a list and checking it twice. She's been waiting for this big sale a whole year.

The 30-year-old oil-trading employee hopes to score a microwave oven, facial toner, and — if she is really lucky — a set of plane tickets to Japan, all on the cheap.

Zheng isn't prepping for Black Friday or Cyber Monday, the season's two major shopping days in North America. Thousands of miles away, in China, a similar retail hurricane sweeps that nation at an even mightier force, weeks before the pre-shopping-blitz turkeys hit tables across the U.S. And it happens almost entirely online.

"Two years ago, I'd stay up past 1 a.m. in hopes of snatching great deals, since the sites always crash when the clock strikes midnight," Zheng said. "Thankfully, many e-retailers are offering pre-order options now."

Commonly known as "Double 11," this gargantuan online shopping event falls on November 11 each year. Revenue in 2013 reached $8 billion — more than Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the U.S. combined, according to Boston Consulting Group figures quoted by CNN Money.

Unlike Black Friday, which has been a post-Thanksgiving tradition for U.S. shoppers for decades, China's massive shopping holiday has been around for only six years. And its origins might surprise you.

"It's gotten so overwhelming," said Angela Sun, who works with Zheng. "As an unmarried woman, I've completely forgotten that this whole spectacle was created for single people in the first place."
Photo: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images.
The employees of an e-commerce site prepping the inventory ahead of "Double 11." According to a comment made by Evance, a product engineer at e-retailer Tmall, employees are asked to arrive 12 hours ahead of the 11th and work a 24-hour shift.
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Before Double 11 became the spending phenomenon it is today, it was known as "Singles Day," a gag holiday created for China's millions of unattached millennials. An estimated 249 million adults in China — about 18 percent of the population — are unmarried, according to the 2010 national census. Pair that with major spending power wielded by China's millennials, and it's easy to see why this Valentine's Day for the uncoupled took off so fast.

Although the holiday's its founder remains unknown, its moniker seems to have derived from a joke among the city of Nanjing's high school crowd during the '90s, according to the China Economic Report, a monthly publication released by a government department.

The date was "christened" because of the numeral's likeness to a person standing alone. Gag gifts like neck pillows in the shape of a boyfriend's arm were sold to make light of China's worsening "leftover women" issue.

Like many other trends that have entered the collective consciousness, the widespread popularity of Singles Day today can be attributed to the rise of social media.

The commercialization of the holiday came on the heels of the 2009 launch of Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter and Facebook. Businessman Jack Ma genially marketed the day as a reason for singletons to reward themselves by shopping. The idea spread like wildfire on the microblogging platform.
Photo: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images.
A screen depicting Alibaba's all-time-high transactional volume on November 11, 2014. These victory press conferences, often hosted by Ma himself, are as much of a media spectacle as an Apple product release.
Ma might not be a household name stateside, but the second-richest man in China is often credited as the person behind it all. The founder of Alibaba Group, the parent company of e-commerce giants Tmall and Taobao, Ma single-handedly transformed a silly idea into a global shopping festival that has jumped a staggering 5,740% in sales from 2009 to 2013. The event now features discounts on everything from baby formula to Cadillacs (yes, you can purchase them online).

So, what exactly made Double 11 — or Singles Day — the smashing success it is today?

According to a report published by Delphine Manceau, the dean of European executive education & corporate relations at the ESCP Europe business school, the holiday flips the traditional supply-and-demand model.

"In the past, products and services were created to meet customer demands, but now that notion has been turned on its head," she wrote. "If you create something in a large enough scale, it might alter the market's purchasing habits and behavior."

As an unmarried woman, I've completely forgotten that this whole spectacle was created for single people in the first place.

Angela Sun
In other words, when a merchant is huge enough to peddle an avalanche of deeply discounted items for just one day, people will be marking their calendars. The holiday might give the perfect excuse to shop away your sorrows from being single at first. But at the end of the day, it was just a fodder for conspicuous consumption.

After all, married people, including Zheng, also find markdowns irresistible. Western companies are picking up on the holiday's marketing potential, too: High fashion e-commerce site Farfetch is promoting a 11% off sale and free shipping for customers in China on November 11. However, the e-tailer is prohibited from using the phrase "Double 11" in any promotional material, as Alibaba trademarked the term back in 2012. Not to miss out on opportunities to capitalize on other dates, Alibaba is already test-driving December 12 — "Double 12" — as another shopping holiday.

But even as these major deal promotions grow, these discount days in China may have one advantage over their U.S. counterparts: With much of the shopping happening online, at least crazy Black Friday lines and stampedes are out of the equation.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tmall.
A screenshot of Tmall at the peak of its Double 11 promotion. The homepage features a dizzying range of promotional links — from special coupons you can use that day to celebrity picks on markdown merchandise.
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