November 11 is a special day in most of the world. Throughout the British Commonwealth, it is Remembrance Day, and for good reason: to remember the million or more soldiers who lost their lives in World War One, which ended (in the West, at least) on November 11, 1918. It’s also a public holiday in France and Belgium, which suffered even more. And in the United States, it is Veterans Day, set aside to honor all of those who have served in the armed forces, in war and in peace.
But by far the biggest November 11 observances this year will be in China, where 11/11 is Singles Day. It’s the day when China’s one-child children come together to moan about how lonely they are — and maybe to find that special someone they can moan with.
Part Valentine’s Day and part Black Friday (the American after-Thanksgiving Christmas shopping export), 11/11 is a very recent addition to China’s holiday calendar. It supposedly originated in the men’s dorms at Nanjing University in the mid-1990s. Bummed at being single and sexless, four lonely guys resolved to party on the loneliest day of the year: quadruple-1 day, or 11/11. That’s four 1’s, each one alone. How poignant.
A quarter century on, those first quadruple-1ers are now in their mid-forties and no doubt reminiscing about the lost freedoms of their glory days. But the rest of China has caught the Singles Day bug. November 11 is an occasion for young people to eat out and sing karaoke. It is a big date night and a popular wedding day. It’s also a favorite time for pranksters to play tricks on those lucky enough to have an actual date on Singles Day. All in good fun.
Since 2009, it’s also been good money. That’s when China’s online shopping behemoth Alibaba ran its first Singles Day sales. They were such a success that, the next year, Alibaba expanded the event all across its two main marketplaces, Taobao (‘China’s eBay’) and Tmall (‘China’s Amazon’). Competing websites piled in as well, leading Alibaba to trademark ‘Double Eleven’ (11/11) in advance of the triple eleven 2011 event. Singles Day is now the biggest shopping day in the world, generating much larger sales revenue than the American Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.
It’s no coincidence that Alibaba chose to hold its big shopping event in November. China tends to ape all things American, from action films to aircraft carriers, and retailing is no exception. In America, of course, the big November shopping days come in the run-up to Christmas, which is why Black Friday and Cyber Monday have gained some purchase outside the United States, despite the fact that other countries don’t share America’s fourth-Thursday-in-November Thanksgiving holiday. But Christmas is not widely celebrated in China. Double Eleven sales are held in November simply because American retailers report record sales in that month, and Alibaba didn’t want to be left out.
In 2015, Alibaba made Double Eleven even more American by launching an annual televised launch gala featuring big-name American stars. The 2015 headliner was the somewhat second-tier Adam Lambert, but in 2016 Alibaba splashed out on Katy Perry. In the event, she had to cancel at the last minute for personal reasons. One Republic were the lucky replacements.
Undiscouraged, Alibaba booked the happy rapper Pharrell Williams for 2017, with English pop star Jesse J (‘it’s not about the money, money, money’? of course it is!) as the opening act and Australia’s own Nicole Kidman as mistress of ceremonies. For 2018, they got no less than Mariah Carey, and Taylor Swift is booked for this weekend. Yes, the most popular entertainer in the world will be headlining a Sunday night show in Shanghai to kick off Monday’s 24-hour online shopping festival. That’s how big it is.
And it’s not just big in China. Alibaba is ambitious for international expansion, and Double Eleven is its spearhead. Southeast Asia is an obvious target, and Alibaba is pushing hard all across China’s southern borders. In 2016 it bought Singapore’s online shopping site Lazada, and between that and its own-branded sites it has established itself as the dominant e-commerce platform throughout the region. The Southeast Asian market may be small compared to China’s, but it’s big in its own right, and it’s a sandbox where Alibaba can gain valuable cross-border operating experience.
A less obvious target for Alibaba’s international expansion is Europe. But in 2017 it launched Singles Day in Germany in collaboration with Media Markt, Europe’s largest electronics retailer. Avoiding the ‘Double Eleven’ moniker, presumably because of its local association with Germany’s defeat in World War One, Alibaba’s European promotions expanded in 2018 to include Germany’s Douglas (beauty supplies) and Rossmann (pharmacies). Spain’s top department store, El Corte Inglés, and Russia’s Pyaterochka chain of convenience stores are also participating.
So while Britain and France are remembering the loss of a generation of young men in the fight to save civilisation from rampant German militarism, Germans are being encouraged to forget it all and embrace a new shopping holiday. Remembrance Day has never been very well remembered in Germany, where the war crimes of World War One have been washed away in the flood of official regret over the horrors of the Holocaust and World War Two. But at least in the past, Remembrance Day has been met with a respectful silence. This year, it will be met with … Taylor Swift.
Double Eleven is a big shopping day for Australian businesses selling in China, but it’s not a big shopping day in Australia itself — yet. Anyway you can’t blame Alibaba for holding a shopping event on a Western day of mourning. In the United States itself, Memorial Day (which dates from the Civil War of 1861-65) is now a major shopping holiday. Then again, every day is a shopping day in America. But Germany might be held to a higher standard.