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Singles Day is China’s biggest shopping holiday. Why hasn’t America caught on?

Brands like ASOS, Urban Outfitters, and Nike have sales, but the US isn’t on board just yet.

A “sale” sign seen in an Oxford Street’s Urban Outfitters.
Urban Outfitters partnered with teen popstar Billie Eilish to release a Singles Day capsule collection.
Rahman Hassani/Getty Images

The world’s biggest shopping event occurs every year on November 11, and most Americans are only vaguely aware of it. Called Singles Day, shoppers in the US don’t look forward to it the way they anticipate Black Friday or Amazon Prime Day, but maybe they should. After all, the shopping holiday is predicated on the idea of spending money on yourself — a favorite American pastime.

As the name suggests, Singles Day was started as an unofficial celebration of a person’s singledom, founded in the 1990s by Chinese university students. The date selected was 11/11, and is fittingly full of 1’s to symbolize solo living.

Today, the holiday has transformed into a massive one-day shopping event thanks to the deft marketing tactics of Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba. In 2009, the retailer realized Singles Day could be an opportunity to profit from single consumers by providing an occasion to shop for themselves.

The original idea behind the first Singles Day was to promote Alibaba’s shopping marketplace Taobao, according to Forbes. Alibaba offered customers discounts up to 50 percent off from more than 25 merchants and generated about $7 million in sales at the end of the day — a fraction of what the shopping spree has brought in over the past few years.

Year over year, more brands and customers seemed eager to participate as Alibaba grew. The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, and the following year, Singles Day broke a Guinness World Record for the highest online sales revenue generated by a single company in 24 hours at $14 billion.

A screen that tracks Alibaba’s sales volume during Singles Day.
A screen that tracks Alibaba’s sales volume during Singles Day.
Getty Images

The online event consistently generates billions of dollars annually for Alibaba, on a scale that makes American shopping holidays appear tame: This year’s sales ended at $38.3 billion in gross merchandise value, surpassing last year’s $30 billion record, according to CNBC. (It’s not just on November 11; customers also participate in presales by making down payments for certain products and paying the rest on Singles Day.)

One reason for the event’s success is the sheer size of the Chinese consumer market, but it’s also possible that Alibaba, in 2009, tapped into the idea of “self-care” to drive sales. While self-care has become overly commodified in America, customers are still attracted to purchasing things that are predicated on making them feel better.

Western brands and retailers have recognized this extreme buying power and hopped on the deals and discounts bandwagon in an effort to reap sales from American and Chinese customers alike.

Brands like Adobe, Brooks Brothers, ASOS, and Estée Lauder have advertised and offered deals for the event this year, following the success of retailers in 2018. Apple, Nike, and Adidas each brought in more than $14 million in sales last year, according to the New York Times. Urban Outfitters has also partnered with teen popstar Billie Eilish to release a Singles Day capsule collection and is offering 30 percent off all sale products online.

US companies aren’t the only ones to tap American celebrities to promote the shopping extravaganza. Alibaba has a tradition of booking A-list stars (Mariah Carey, Nicole Kidman, and Pharrell Williams, to name a few) to perform at its opening gala.

This year, Taylor Swift was the headliner of the Singles Day concert in Shanghai, and Kim Kardashian promoted her cosmetics line alongside Chinese influencer Viya ahead of the holiday last week. Kardashian was also recruited to join a global influencers program spearheaded by Tmall Global, an online shopping platform owned by Alibaba, to introduce Chinese customers to popular international products.

Taylor Swift performs at Alibaba’s opening gala in Shanghai on Singles Day.
Taylor Swift performs at Alibaba’s opening gala in Shanghai on Singles Day.
Getty Images

But current political tensions between the US and China — over trade disputes and how American brands have responded to demonstrations in Hong Kong — threaten to complicate things for US companies. Up to 78 percent of Chinese respondents surveyed by Alix Partners said they would avoid buying American brands for the holiday, and more than half cited national loyalty as their reason for the boycott.

While most American brands have sought to appease both sides in the Hong Kong-China conflict, Chinese customers are still wary of official corporate statements in the wake of a company’s offending message.

Retail experts are also hesitant about whether American customers would buy into the holiday, despite brands’ growing enthusiasm toward Singles Day. “We have a long-standing history of event after event after event,” Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, told Fast Company. “Our calendar in the United States is filled with quasi-motivational shop-now [days].”

While holidays provide an overarching incentive for customers to shop, it could be difficult for Americans to adopt yet another shopping holiday in between Prime Day in July and Black Friday in late November. Customers’ shopping calendars are already packed, according to Cohen, and “a single retailer getting in on someone else’s parade is meaningless.”

Ultimately, buying power for the event is still consolidated in the hands of Chinese customers. It could take years before Singles Day solidifies itself as an online shopping holiday in the US. Or it could just be another addition to the list of fake national holidays that brands capitalize upon to sell a product or offer a random 30 percent discount.

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