What You can Learn from the Multibillion Dollar Success of Singles Day

Singles Day

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in November 2019. It has since been updated for relevancy and accuracy.

If ever there was a year to celebrate singles, 2020 is it. With enforced quarantine and isolation throughout the region, singles are struggling. The usual social events have been cancelled, pubs are closed or restricted, and even online dating has become challenging.

Singles Day is a glimpse into the future of ecommerce: There’s a lot to learn from the way the manufactured holiday has blossomed into an extreme, nearly instantaneous moneymaker—lessons you can apply to your own growing business. 

What is Singles Day?

Singles Day, celebrated on November 11, is a sales event that originated in China. But it wasn’t always a shopping bonanza. In fact, it began in 1993 as a kind of anti-Valentines Day—a day for singles to treat and celebrate themselves in the same way couples and families get celebrated at various milestones. Think Carrie Bradshaw and the Sex and the City episode ‘A woman’s right to shoes’.

Since then, it has become the biggest online shopping day in China, bigger than Cyber Monday and Black Friday combined. In fact, last year’s Singles Day resulted in $38.4 billion for Alibaba, beating the $30.8 billion record set the year before.

“Within 24 hours, people in China have spent more money to buy stuff than entire countries make in a year,” Business Insider reported after Singles Day last year.

In Chinese numerology, numbers carry a ton of significance. While the number one can signify a win (ie. first place), it also represents loneliness or a solo relationship status. The holiday started at Nanjing University as a way for students to celebrate their singledom (it was founded by four single young men, which is why it was originally called Bachelor Day). It’s also known as the “bare sticks holiday” because of the way four ‘1s’ appear in the calendar. 

The holiday caught on in China, particularly among young people, and so in 2009, Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma harnessed the day’s moneymaking potential by offering mega deals to swarms of shoppers.

How is Singles Day different from Black Friday and Cyber Monday?

For one thing, it’s way bigger. More than 4.14 million people shopped online in 2018 from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday, which follows that holiday, according to the National Retail Federation in the US. Small potatoes compared to Singles Day, which in that year made more than $4.68 billion in sales within 10 minutes.

Black Friday Cyber Monday (BFCM) is a traditionally U.S.-based Thanksgiving weekend sales event, which started in bricks-and-mortar and moved to ecommerce over the following years. Despite Asia Pacific’s lack of a Thanksgiving holiday weekend, BFCM has been embraced in the region, outstripping the sales of both Clickfrenzy and the traditional Boxing Day sales. If leveraged effectively, this type of special seasonal sales event can make the year of some retailers.

Singles Day is concentrated primarily within ecommerce marketplace Alibaba and its affiliate sites, Taobao (consumer to consumer) and Tmall (business to consumer)—for now. Tmall is actually the driver of Singles Day, and more than 200,000 brands on its site offered deeply discounted items this year. Despite the concentration of sales to these major outlets, the event has grown to four times the size of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which is unheard of. Another major difference, though? You’re unlikely to find Western brands such as Apple, although you can increasingly find products from companies including Dyson and Spanish beauty company MartiDerm.

Why should other countries observe Singles Day?

The obvious advantage of a boost in sales aside, singles should be celebrated, too. There are many milestones couples achieve which are celebrated with gifts, but beyond the simple birthday, singles have no celebrated occasions.

Singles are also a relatively untapped market, and yet have higher disposable incomes than the traditional nuclear family. Whether young, newly divorced or retired, singles are on the rise; the amount of people living alone in the US has doubled over the last 50 years, and this trend is being replicated globally.

Why is Singles Day so successful?

It probably helps that Alibaba is the world’s biggest ecommerce company with sales outpacing eBay and Amazon combined—and its sales are bottom of the barrel cheap. The sales platform and its affiliates sell wholesale items as well as direct to consumer and it also allows shoppers to sell to one another as well. The Singles Day sales are complete steals: During Singles Day this year, Alibaba had Bluetooth earbuds on offer for $1.50–$6.90 for TWO pairs. 

The incredibly low prices of these products must have something to do with the sales platform’s wild Singles Day success. A post on Quora by a merchandiser who uses Alibaba said the site is so cheap because of the low cost of labour in China, the way the site sells in bulk (why not buy two pairs of Bluetooth earbuds if they’re only $6?), the low cost of electricity and less consumer targeting. Why is there less consumer targeting? Because the site is mostly set up to sell to merchandisers, who are stocking their own shops with these products. That said, Alibaba does have a Wholesale Market that sells products to individuals for personal use, as well as Aliexpress.com — both participants in Singles Day.

There is, however, some skepticism about the sales reporting Alibaba is claiming related to Singles Day. According to The New York Times, “The big numbers that Alibaba likes to show off on Singles Day are not a perfect gauge of how all this might be affecting middle-class China’s appetite for retail therapy.” Alibaba reports gross merchandise volume, which represents the total value of orders on its platforms, the Times says—something that, in actuality, is pretty hard to track because, the Times reports, there is no standardized way of measuring it. 

What can your online retail business learn from Singles Day?

Singles Day reveals the changing nature of ecommerce. First things first—you best be ready to make those sales over a smartphone. McKinsey reports that more than 90% of sales in 2018’s Singles Day happened over mobile devices, compared with 34% of purchases on Cyber Monday. It also illustrates a certain willingness to go deep on discounts for a single-day event to drive customers to your site. On Singles Day 2018, parent and baby product prices were slashed 33% on average, which resulted in 18–19% of sales in China, versus 6–7% on a normal day, according to McKinsey. That also helps establish the day as something for shoppers in certain market categories (like parenting) to mark that date on their calendar and to be ready with their credit card. McKinsey does, however, warn that deeply discounting products is harder for smaller companies to do. “One way to avoid unprofitable sales is to pair more modest discounts with free gifts or shift the emphasis toward product launches.”

Participation in Singles Day is quickly becoming a requirement for any international brand interested in tapping the massive Chinese market. Start folding the event into your growth plans if you’d like to expand into that global ecommerce goldmine. 

Never miss an important holiday marketing opportunity again

Singles Day strategies

  1. Mobile first. Singles shop on mobile, so mobile sales optimisation is a must for this event. More than 90% of sales in 2018’s Singles Day happened over mobile devices, so if you’re not on mobile, you will be invisible. 
  2. Put treats on sale, not just essentials. This is a day for singles to treat and nurture themselves, so think special events, travel, beauty and hair, clothes and fashion, and even dating apps, to pamper singles on their special day.
  3. Be a place for community. Now more than ever, brands are becoming a way for like-minded people to meet and connect in an online environment. People can share and discuss what they love about their favorite brands (and give brands good insight into their customers in the process). Encourage and facilitate a healthy, online community based on positivity and shared values—it could be a way for singles to meet!
  4. Tap into the massive Chinese market. As we can see, this sales event in China is huge—the biggest event of the year, so tap into this market with your brand, to encourage truly global ecommerce.
  5. Make it about value and appreciation. The traditional platforms involved in this event make it well worth the shoppers while, with significant discounts and special offers across a variety of products. To be noticed, make it big—small discounts and non-offers won’t cut it.

Singles Day FAQs

1. What is Singles Day?

Singles Day was a holiday that started in China to celebrate single individuals. It is one of the largest global online sales shopping day.

2. When is Singles Day?

Singles Day takes place on November 11.

3. Is Singles Day celebrated in United States?

In the past Singles Day hasn't been a celebration event. However, many retailers are adopting the holiday to increase their sales.

About the author

Sarah Boesveld

Sarah Boesveld is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who has been a staff reporter for Chatelaine, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail.

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