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Man indoors holding shopping bagsThe turn of the century created a wealth of interesting, funny, or cute date combinations, prompting people with superstitious beliefs to stay inside on June 6, 2006 (i.e., 6/6/6), and millions of couples to book November 11, 2011, as their wedding date. Retailers in China have recognized the motivating power of such numerical alignments and accordingly created a new annual event: Singles’ Day.

On November 11 each year, the numerical form (11/11) with its four 1s has signified loneliness, such that people without a partner—mostly single men, considering the vast gender imbalance in China—mourned their status by having a drink. Noting that this vast market was feeling sad, lonely, and in need of comfort, China’s top online sales site Alibaba started suggesting that buying a new electronic device or pair of shoes also could make the men feel a little better.

From that notion, a retail revolution was sparked. This year, 402 million different shoppers visited one of Alibaba’s linked sites to shop. That’s more than one-third of China’s total population. The vast numbers of consumers purchased $5.75 billion worth of goods, which far outpaced any previous single-day sales total, anywhere in the world. (For example, in the United States, the most recent Cyber Monday prompted sales of just over $2 billion.)

As online shopping expands in China—some estimates predict it will grow by an average of 32 percent annually for the next several years—shoppers do not just browse and buy through their computers. During the first hour (i.e., midnight to 1:00 a.m.) of this year’s Singles’ Day promotion, Alibaba noted that 24 percent of its orders came from users’ smartphones.

Clearly the sales and promotions have attracted more than just China’s single men. Consumers throughout the country, representing various target markets, wait all year for the excellent Singles’ Day deals. For some firms, the event constitutes up to 30 percent of their sales for the year, such that they are willing to reduce prices drastically to attract more visitors. Moreover, many firms have expanded the timeline, by allowing online shoppers to place items in their virtual carts several days in advance of 11/11 but make the actual purchase when the price drops on Singles’ Day.

Such vast numbers of orders also demand reconsideration of the logistics in place. Alibaba added new servers to handle all the visitors. Western firms also rejoiced at their ability to reach more rural and remote Chinese consumers, considering the difficulties they have had building brick-and-mortar outlets to reach people spread across the huge nation.

With all these factors in place, most predictions indicate that China will surpass the United States as the top country for e-commerce some time this year. That promise has prompted some retailers to try to establish another annual e-commerce event, namely, Double 12 on December 12, just in case there is anything left that shoppers missed the month before!

Source: Shanshan Wang and Eric Pfanner, “China’s One-Day Shopping Spree Sets Record for Online Sales,” The New York Times, November 11, 2013