For most of the world, next Tuesday will be just another day. But in China, internet users will be throwing money at their screens. At the end of the day, Chinese users will almost certainly have set a new record, spending more money online in a single day than has ever been spent before anywhere.
Why? Because all of the ones in the date – 11/11 – reminded some college kids of loneliness.
For a country where many major holidays can be traced back thousands of years, Singles Day is a refreshingly recent invention. No one is quite sure exactly who first thought it up, but it definitely emerged as a student tradition in the mid-1990s. The most widely-accepted story is that it emerged from the dorms of Nanjing University in 1993 when four single male students got together to discuss how to break free of the loneliness and monotony of single life. One suggested that because of the ones in the date, November 11 would be a good day on which to organize activities for singles.
How did an underground youth holiday go corporate? It’s a long story, but the short answer is Alibaba.
By the late 2000s, Singles Day was well known enough that most of China’s internet users – who skew young and urban – were familiar with it. There might have been some small shops online and offline offering sales on that day earlier, but no major company bought into the holiday until Alibaba launched its first Singles Day online sale in 2009.
An Alibaba representative explains to Tech in Asia that the company’s intent wasn’t to tie its day of sales to any particular holiday. November 11 was just a convenient date that fell during a holiday lull: sales were common before China’s National Day in late September and again before Spring Festival in the first two months of the year, but late autumn had no recurring retail sale period. November was thus the perfect time for big online sales; there was no offline sale to compete with and at a time when ecommerce was still growing in China, getting consumers’ undivided attention was important.
That said, although Alibaba plays down the Singles Day connection and has since even trademarked a different term – double-eleven – for its day of sales, it seems unlikely that the date of November 11 was chosen by total coincidence. After all, it was a holiday that already had some cachet with China’s young, urban internet users, who were Alibaba’s primary customers. Moreover, the company used the original term for Singles Day invented by university students – guanggunjie – in its marketing materials until as late as 2012.
Read more at Tech in Asia.