Singles’ Day (November 11th) is, by far, the world’s biggest one-day shopping event. While it is still largely focused on China, there are signs it is starting to have an influence on ecommerce globally.  Here’s what you need to know.

First off, a bit of background about Singles’ Day:

  • Singles’ Day started at Nanjing University in 1993 and was started as a way for those without a romantic partner to have their own day to celebrate.
  • November 11th was chosen as the date for the event because, written numerically (11/11), the digits look like ‘bare branches’, a Chinese expression for singles.
  • In 2009, ecommerce platform Alibaba started using the date for its annual online sale.
  • Sales on the day have grown from US$5.8 billion in Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) in 2013 to more than US$25.4 billion GMV in 2017.
  • This makes it the largest one-day (24 hour) sale by volume, globally – and those figures are just for the Alibaba-owned sites Tmall and Taobao.
  • Alibaba alone sells more than twice as much as is sold online in the US over the 5-day Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend (which drew US$10 billion in GMV in 2017).
  • JD.com, a Tencent competitor to Alibaba in China, has its own Singles’ Day event lasting 11 days (1st to 11th), which netted an additional US$19 billion in sales in 2017.

In short, Singles’ Day has been a runaway success for ecommerce in China. So, what can we expect for Singles’ Day in 2018?

Promotional banner in Chinese for Singles' Day, featuring four cartoon cats at the bottom with comic expressions.

Singles’ Day will be bigger

While Alibaba is being unusually tight-lipped about expected sales volume of Singles’ Day 2018, the company is aiming to grow the event by including offline as well as online shopping.

As part of the company’s ‘new retail’ initiative, Alibaba has equipped traditional retailers with systems which help them manage their bricks-and-mortar inventory, as well as provide distribution centers for stores’ parallel online presence.

This short video illustrates how Alibaba is combining online and offline shopping with its ‘new retail’ flagship store, Hema Supermarket, with innovations like barcode scanning on mobile to reveal product information, and recommendations of complementary products.

All purchases on Singles’ Day, either online or at a ‘new retail’ locations, will count toward the total GMV for the day, so it is almost certain that the 2018 GMV will exceed what was reported in 2017.

But problems are anticipated

Some analysts are forecasting that along with record-breaking sales figures, there may also be some ‘infrastructure-breaking’ demands on the company’s logistics.

Retail News Asia reports that Singles’ Day is a ‘massive test bed’ for Alibaba’s infrastructure.  Last year, the sales event generated demand for 812 million parcels to be delivered and, in 2018, it is anticipated that the 1-day sale will require that Alibaba deliver 1 billion packages within a matter of days.

To handle the increased demand, Alibaba has built a new IOT-powered warehouse with self-charging Quicktron robots to help packers fill orders more efficiently.

Promotional image of a large warehouse with crates and boxes sitting on black shelving units.

Alibaba’s “robot warehouse”

Merchants in other countries will benefit, too

Nearly 40% of the $25 billion goods sold to Chinese consumers in 2017 were for products produced by foreign brands and some, including Topshop in the UK, experienced dramatic increases in domestic sales on the day as well.

China’s Singles’ Day: Can Western brands take advantage?

The biggest news in 2018, though, is that for the first time Alibaba is actively pursuing Singles’ Day shoppers outside of China. The company recently announced that it will market Singles’ Day 2018 in Singapore in partnership with its Singapore-based marketplace, Lazada. To help manage the event, the company will support local buyers with a dedicated operations team based in the country.

This makes sense as, while the GMV from abroad is much smaller than it is in China, Lazada’s sales over Singles’ Day in 2017 was US$123 million, a 171% increase for the same period in 2016. Singles’ Day, it seems, is catching on in Southeast Asia.

Promotional banners featuring Singles' Day deals on the Lazada homepage

And, while Singapore is hosting Alibaba’s first official overseas Singles’ Day event, the company noted in a press release that the country is only one of six ‘priority markets’, which also include Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand and Taiwan. Shoppers in these countries can presumably expect the sale to hit their shores soon.

And there is still room to grow

It is often pointed out that Singles’ Day, with around US$50 billion in sales annually across all properties, is the world’s biggest online sales event. The GMV generated on the day (US$25 billion) far exceeds that of the next-largest event, Black Friday in the US (US$10 billion GMV).

Yet even the total GMV of Singles’ Day looks small when compared with the whole of the Christmas season in the US. In 2017, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, shoppers in the US spent a staggering US$682 billion on retail purchases. Singles’ Day still has a long way to go before it matches the retail frenzy of Christmas in America.

So, while Singles’ Day is still focused on China, there are plenty of signs that it is growing and seeking to reach shoppers across the world. Marketers are, therefore, advised to take note and look for opportunities to participate in the event in 2019.