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Singles Day November 11: How did AliBaba and JD.com turn China's celebration of the lonely into a shopping orgy?

Shopping frenzy Singles Day has a heart and a story, so where did it begin?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 12:10am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 4:00pm

Singles Day is more than billions in sales on Alibaba and JD.com. Singles Day is more than a day for lonely hearts in China. It is both.

While now November 11 in China is more commercial than Christmas, it had a similar journey from cute to crass.

In 1993 students at Nanjing University chose November 11 as Bachelor’s day, for unmarried men to celebrate their singleness and buy themselves a present. They chose the date 11.11 as the numbers look like four singles.

The numbers are also reminiscent of empty branches, which gave us the slang term: bare branches day.

11.11.1993

This was a decade or so after the start of China’s one-child policy, which officially began in 1983 but was hanging over Chinese society unofficially since 1979.

Bachelors Day took off and was renamed Singles Day to encourage unmarried women to join in, Nasdaq.com reported.

As TV presenter and relationship academic Yue Xu told Time, the day evolved to become a deadline for those who weren’t married to update their status.

“Rather than seeing it as a way of celebrating single-hood, they see it as an end date,” Xu said. “This is the last day I’m going to be single.”

Lonely hearts would treat each other to dinner or buy another a present, perhaps ending their single status, making the day more like a Chinese Valentine’s Day.

READ MORE: Calling all the single ladies: Alibaba’s Singles’ Day shopping spree set to hit new sales record despite slowdown in China’s retail growth

Time’s up

But there’s a nuance in China that needs to be explained. The notion of being single was a foreign concept until recently. Chinese people were either married or not married, Xu said.

“China used to be a society where there was no dating culture,” she said. “There was no going on dates to turn into a relationship. You see someone if you can marry them or you never see them again. It’s all or nothing.”

As the one-child policy took its toll on Chinese youth, singles were becoming all the more common as male children were preferred.

In January 2015, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission acknowledged in a statement on its website: “Our country has the most serious gender imbalance that is most prolonged and affecting the most number of people”.

In 2013 about 119 boys were born for every 100 girls, leading to estimates that by 2020, men at marriage age would outnumber women by 24 million, the South China Morning Post reported.

It was the perfect environment for a sales pitch.

For the past three years November 11 has been synonymous with record breaking online sales initially publicised by Alibaba founder Jack Ma in 2009.

During that time the value of its turnover has become unfathomable. More than US$1 billion worth of goods were sold in the first 17 minutes of November 11, 2014 and the total value sold on the day reached US$9.3 billion, an increase on the 2013 total of $5.75 billion, according to Alibaba.

By comparison, Singles Day or Double-11 Day as it’s also known blitzed the US super sale Cyber Monday’s total of $2.29 billion, according to the Adobe Digital Index , which it has been doing for the past three years.

So how big is it?

More than a million products were offered last year, according to Comscore. Customers this year will be able to choose from more than 6 million products from around 40,000 merchants and 30,000 brands. Consumers are expected to spend an average of 1,761 yuan ($277) per person, up 22 per cent year on year, according to a Nielsen survey of more than 1,000 Chinese Internet users.

The logistics

Alibaba estimates that 1.7 million deliverymen, 400,000 delivery vehicles, 5,000 warehouses and 200 airplanes will be deployed by its partners to handle the deliveries. China Post estimates that 760 million packages will be shipped by various Chinese e-shopping sites to customers on the day. That’s up significantly from 540 million packages produced last year, according to a post office quote by Alibaba’s news site Alizila. Retailers will be offering more perks such as free refunds and delivery, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

Watch: Kevin Spacey - aka President Frank Underwood - promotes Singles Day for TMall/Jack Ma

Additional reporting by Bloomberg