Every year on November 11, shoppers in the United States and China fill their carts, both physical and digital, with heavily discounted products. But while American retailers pretend to honor the troops by slashing prices on appliances and other home goods, their Chinese counterparts are hawking discount products in celebration of Singles Day.
Created by college students in the early 1990s, Singles Day can be read as either a celebration of singledom — it’s often described as the anti-Valentine’s Day — or, conversely, a day where people feel bad for themselves for not being paired up. (The holiday is also known as Guang Gun Jie, or “Bare Sticks Day” — “bare sticks” is a nickname for bachelors. It takes place on 11/11 because the number 1 represents people who are unmarried.)
The holiday was deftly co-opted by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which held its first annual Singles Day sale in 2009 and transformed the day into one of China’s — and the world’s — largest shopping holidays.
As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote for Racked in 2015, Singles Day is deeply rooted in “issues around gender and marriage in China,” and may not resonate with an American audience. In China, she wrote, Singles Day isn’t a celebration of living solo, but rather a matchmaking and shopping frenzy where young singles try to find mates, and assuage their anxieties over singledom by splurging on themselves. But in recent years, the holiday has emerged in the US as a celebration of self-love and self-care — and, of course, as an excuse to spend.
This year, Totokaelo, a high-end retailer with locations in Seattle and New York City, celebrated Singles Day by giving shoppers 11 percent off everything in the store. US Weekly’s roundup of Singles Day sales included deals from the Outnet, L’Occitane, and Urban Outfitters. Need Supply Co. offered 11 percent off all its products; H&M gave shoppers 20 percent off when they spent more than $100. American Apparel gave shoppers 33 percent off their orders.
By tying sales to a particular holiday, Vox’s Chavie Lieber recently explained, retailers create a sense of urgency and get shoppers to spend money when they otherwise wouldn’t. “These holidays feed on herd mentality, where everybody is rushing to shop because there’s all this hype,” April Benson, a shopping addiction therapist and author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, told Lieber.
The surge in Singles Day sales outside of China is part of a larger global trend. In 2016, shoppers in 235 countries made Singles Day purchases, according to the Hong-Kong based freight marketplace Freightos, which projected that the holiday will soon “become a US sales festival.” The following year saw a 68 percent surge in North American Singles Day revenue, according to Marketing Land contributor Shani Rosenfelder.
Despite the rise in global Singles Day sales, Chinese retailers still reign supreme. Alibaba reportedly racked up $30.8 billion during this year’s 24-hour shopping spree — a 27 percent increase from last year and an all-time record for the e-commerce platform. Amazon’s Prime Day sale, meanwhile reportedly generated $4 billion in sales this year; Black Friday sales generated about $14.05 billion in online sales over the course of four days in 2017. (It’s worth noting that Alibaba’s sales figures are often disputed, since the company reports its “gross merchandise value” instead of actual revenues.)
It’s not all good news for Alibaba, though. Investors Business Daily reported that even with record-high Singles Day sales, total 2018 sales were lower than estimated and the company’s stock fell. The New York Times reported that some young people in China are beginning to shun the holiday. “Singles Day just doesn’t hold that much appeal for me,” Wang Xin, a 24-year-old engineer, told the paper.
Still, American retailers are catching on to the holiday. It’s possible that in the near future, Singles Day sales — which have more of a “treat yourself” vibe than Veterans Day sales or the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping frenzy — may become widespread in the US.