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Why China's Singles Day Won't Become an American Shopping Holiday


China’s bachelors and bachelorettes are spending Tuesday with Alibaba (BABA). Nov. 11 is known in China as Singles Day, an annual event for which online retailers slash prices, and China’s eligible shoppers treat themselves to discounted goodies. Popularized by Alibaba in 2009, Singles Day has become wildly popular. Alibaba watchers have speculated that the company will easily top last year’s record $5.7 billion (35 billion yuan) in sales.

All those billions will be spent without any meaningful contribution from Americans. “When you hear the biggest online shopping day in the world is Singles Day, you think, ‘That must be coming to the U.S., then,’” says David Rogers, a branding expert who teaches digital marketing strategy at Columbia Business School. “Certainly you couldn’t have the biggest thing out there without the U.S. involved—but that’s actually already the case.”

Alibaba has every reason to open its arms to any who want to shop on Singles Day. The e-commerce giant already convinced a number of U.S. companies—including Costco (COST), American Eagle Outfitters (AEO), and Calvin Klein (PVH)—to participate for the first time in this year’s event. Twice as many Alibaba servers will be running overseas in time for Tuesday’s extravaganza, and an arrangement with China’s postal service will ensure that goods can be shipped to more than 220 countries around the world. It’s all part of the goal to make Singles Day “a true global shopping event” within the next decade.

STORY: Next Up for Alibaba: The Giant 'Singles Day' Sales
If world domination is its mission, Alibaba faces a big hurdle. While it’s fairly straightforward for U.S. companies to dip into China’s market to sell discounted merchandize on Nov. 11, getting Singles Day to take off in the U.S. will be “very, very difficult,” says Randy Allen, senior lecturer at the Johnson Graduate School of Management.

First, the numerical design of the holiday—all those ones forming the date 11/11—faces a formidable incumbent on the U.S. calendar: Veterans Day. It also falls just after the back-to-school interval and mere weeks before the start of the month-long holiday shopping season, calling into question just how much discretionary spending might be left to exploit. (It’s worth noting that Singles Day last year more than doubled the gross merchandise volume of online U.S. sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday.)

“People look at holidays that we’ve got and say, ‘Where would you fit another one in? Do I really want to have to buy gifts for another holiday? Is this really something that’s important to me?’” Allen says.

Companies may try to spur spending by bombarding social media with promotions on pseudo-”holidays” like National Doughnut Day, National Dress Up Your Pet Day, or National Coffee Day, but making a new holiday take off is far tougher than declaring it—unless you’re Abraham Lincoln. “It has to be linked to something that already exists in people’s consciousness. The idea of a holiday is not something that a firm can create on its own for its own purposes,” says Peter Golder, a professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business.

Singles Day originated not with Alibaba, but with a group of students at Nanjing University in 1993. As the story goes, the students decided they would celebrate the perils of singledom every Nov. 11. It wasn’t until 2009 that Alibaba spotted an opportunity and encouraged retailers on its platform to offer discounts for the day.

“People may talk about Hallmark holidays, but my sense is that they’re something that existed before,” Golder says. ”The key to Alibaba’s success here is that they’ve taken something that’s already existed, developed it, and taken advantage of the fact that retailers wanted this as well.”

Sorry, U.S. retailers: Inciting further consumer spending among America’s singles is going to take more than embracing a modern Chinese custom. Celebrating singledom is fine, but Rogers has a suggestion for a retail holiday that could really warm a millennial’s heart: “Just Got Your First Job Day.”
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