Singles Day: From innocent beginnings to commercial phenomenon

11 November is a day that holds great significance in both the East and the West. While my colleagues in London observed a two-minute silence for Remembrance Day, there was a very different feeling in the air for my friends in the East.

I received countless updates on WeChat (China’s equivalent of Twitter) from friends in China about the numerous online purchases they were planning or had already made. Let me explain the strange phenomenon of Singles Day.

Socially, the married couple is thought to be the basic unit of Chinese society. The stigma of being single, or worse, labelled as “leftover women” (usually highly educated women who are past the unspoken marriage deadline of 28 years old) or “surplus men” (due to an abnormally high ratio of men to women), is omnipresent.

Even in a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, parents are still enthusiastic about matchmaking (as seen in the photo on the left) and showcasing their marital-age children to potential suitors. Chinese women, and increasingly men, even rent fake boy/girlfriends to foil awkward parent inquiries and avoid being match-made. 

You can imagine the tremendous societal pressure to be married that results from this and it is in this context that Singles Day came about. The day originated in the 1990s when various university students in Nanjing celebrated their “romantically unencumbered” status on 11 November because the numerical look of 11.11 is reminiscent of the Chinese phrase ‘bare branches’, which refers to bachelors. The tradition gradually took off among younger people who come together for parties, karaoke and shopping as a form of retaliation against Valentine’s Day.

It was not long before Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant that owns shopping platforms Taobao and Tmall, picked up on this and began holding 11.11 sales. Single and without a date? Try some retail therapy with Alibaba. No sweetheart getting you gifts? Go to Tmall and treat yourself.

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In 2011, for what is known as the Super Singles Day (11.11.11), Alibaba’s turnover was under $1bn. However, it has gained such momentum since then that online sales are now more than double that of Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US combined, hitting $9bn a week ago. Many other e-tailers, retailers and brands have also jumped on the bandwagon to capitalise on the success of Singles Day. Because of Alibaba, it has morphed into a day that is observed by singles and couples alike.

Today Singles Day is synonymous with online shopping and sales, but it’s worth taking a step back to remember how an innocent campus counter-culture against the social norm gave birth to a mainstream online shopping frenzy.