As soon as the clock strikes midnight Nov. 1, it becomes time to brace for the onslaught of days dedicated to bulk holiday sales and shopping. Everyone knows Black Friday and Cyber Monday are just around the corner, but what about the biggest e-commerce shopping experience of the year?
Singles Day, which takes place Nov. 11, has nothing to do with the holidays. Its creation was inspired by the very opposite — the online shopping extravaganza is an anti-Valentine’s Day, which is why it takes place on 11/11, the only day of the year with four single ones.
Singles Day began at universities as a Chinese cultural phenomenon in the 1990s, as a way for students to celebrate being single. It’s a day when people indulge in nice meals or treat themselves to a day of online shopping — which is what in 2009, Daniel Zhang, CEO of the e-commerce giant Ali Baba, decided to capitalize on. The first Singles Day sales event generated about $7.8 million in revenue. In 2018, it boosted sales around $30.8 billion over 24 hours, more than Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales combined.
But Singles Day isn’t focused on Ali Baba, says Ray Wimer, professor of retail management practice at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. “Ali Baba is more of a facilitator to the brands, and it’s more about the brands people are acquiring,” Wimer says. This sets Singles Day apart from other brand-specific e-commerce days like Prime Day, which was originally created to celebrate Amazon’s 20th anniversary and is now mostly focused on increasing Prime membership.
In 2016, 30 percent of the Singles Day sales were purchases of foreign brands, especially technology and luxury goods. Nike, Apple and New Balance were some of the most popular American brands that year. However, this year, because of the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, more than 75 percent of Chinese consumers said they would boycott American goods and prioritize buying Chinese products.
“It is a big day! We just don’t hear about it in the U.S. because even though it’s available to us, it’s not culturally significant,” Wimer shares. When Americans think of Nov. 11, the first thing that comes to mind is Veterans Day. “Ali Baba needs to make more in-roads to the U.S.,” he says, “in order for Singles Day to become mainstream.”
Wimer shares that with the rise in large e-commerce shopping days, like Singles Day and Prime Day, it doesn’t signal a decline in brick-and-mortar stores,. E-commerce is only expected to represent 10.7 percent of total US retail spending in 2019, though that number is increasing every year.
“Some stores, like Forever 21, which recently filed for bankruptcy, had strategies that didn’t evolve with the changing times — but their decline had more to do with supply chain problems, rising costs and expansion during economic downturns than the threat of e-commerce,” he says.
Wimer also cites stores that originally started off as online only — Warby Parker, Casper, Amazon and Glossier — but now have a physical presence as well. “What they’re realizing is that they can’t get the tactile touch of experience unless they’re there with the customer,” Wimer comments. “E-commerce is great, but we still need to be next to the customer at some point.”
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