China’s version of Black Friday has become an endless slog

Singles' Day now lasts three weeks, and the old thrill is long gone.

Alibaba 2020 Singles' Day

The final GMV of Alibaba's 2020 Singles' Day sales.

Photo: Alibaba Group

For a decade, the thrill of participating in the massive online Singles' Day sale in China was about staying up till 12 a.m. on Nov. 11 and paying for everything in one's shopping cart as quickly as possible, before inventory ran out. But as China's annual ecommerce festival — the largest of its kind in the world — has been extended by ecommerce platforms into a three-week, multipart campaign, the sense of urgency and excitement it once engendered is almost gone.

Created by Alibaba in 2009, Singles' Day quickly grew into one of the most important events on China's internet. In 2020 alone, it generated $74.1 billion worth of sales for Alibaba and $41.1 billion for JD. Nearly 4 billion packages were delivered across China. It's been a spectacle where industry insiders and onlookers marvel at each year's sky-high total gross merchandise value. But as it enters its 13th year, the shopping festival has also become more of a mundane, recurring event than a source of excitement.

As the name suggests, Singles' Day used to be 24 hours long. But this year's version started on Oct. 20, with consumers paying deposits for the "pre-sale" of products and entering a three-day "regular sale" period on Nov. 1. This was followed by another pre-sale period for seven days, and then finally, the Nov. 11 sale.

Confused yet? So is Chinese social media. The topic "Why did the Singles' Day pre-sale start so early this year" has been viewed over 300 million times on Weibo. Creative people have coined the term "Singles' Day Traditionalists" to refer to those who stick to the belief that only Nov. 11 counts as the "real" festival.

"The campaign is too long for it to feel festive," one Weibo user named Shang Fang complained. "The pre-sale has been moved up to Oct. 20. Seems like it won't be far before it's moved up to Oct. 11."

This year, Alibaba essentially kept the three-week calendar it introduced last November. "This worked well last year, not only for us, but also for the broader ecommerce industry," Brion Tingler, an Alibaba spokesperson, told Protocol. Tingler said the expanded duration helps with highlighting smaller brands, easing logistics pressure and giving consumers flexibility.

There are other, more mercenary reasons platforms and vendors prefer a Singles' Day marathon. For one, extending the shopping window encourages more consumption. "A much longer promotion period means that [customers] are more likely to join multiple livestream events, read more promotional articles and have a longer decision-making time, and eventually spend more," Franklin Chu, the U.S. managing director of Azoya Group, an ecommerce consulting company, told Protocol.

When platforms claim their Singles' Day GMV has grown rapidly from years before, they are comparing sales over several weeks to a sale that used to last one day. One shipping manager told Chinese media that 70% of Singles' Day orders they process were placed before Nov. 11.

It also helps vendors and suppliers meet the mounting demand that occurs around Singles' Day. A long pre-sale period allows them to gauge consumer interest and coordinate production based on the pre-orders. This is especially important in a year when the global supply chain has been greatly impeded by the pandemic.

"On top of the pandemic, there have also been disruptions with the coal shortage, so there have been some programs that push retailers to further lean on the pre-sale period," said Camille Gaujacq, market analyst at Daxue Consulting. The prevalence of pre-sales even before Singles' Day has annoyed Chinese customers, who have taken to social media to complain that their orders take weeks or months to arrive. The hashtag "hate pre-sale" has been viewed over 2.7 million times on the popular lifestyle platform RED.

Singles' Day has also been eclipsed by livestreaming ecommerce. On the evening of Oct. 20 alone, the top two livestream influencers on Alibaba's platforms sold over 20 billion RMB ($3.12 billion) worth of products. The thrill of rushing to pay in seconds, the dopamine rush and the steep discounts that usually only happened on Nov. 11 are being repeated daily in livestreaming channels.

A decade after its creation, Singles' Day is no longer a flashy event that keeps everyone in China on their toes, but instead another midyear or end-of-year sale: just another reason to shop. GMV numbers will keep growing, and vendors will still break new records in the amount and speed of their sales. But ordinary consumers can go to bed early tonight without fearing they'll miss much.


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