Singles' Day: Traditional Values, Online Shopping & Economic Indicators

Fans of the TV show 'Parks and Rec' will be familiar with the annual "Treat Yo' Self!" holiday created by Tom and Donna.  China has recently adopted a similar holiday, Singles' Day, that merges Cyber Monday's online shipping free-for-all with a "Valentine's Day for Singles" concept.  


Celebrated 11/11 (the 'singles' angle comes from all the 1's in the date), Singles' Day (or Bachelors' Day) originated at Nanjing University in 1993, and was celebrated at various colleges in Nanjing during the 1990's.  Upon graduating, these college students carried the tradition out into society, and as internet shopping has exploded in China, Singles' Day has been widely popularized.

It has also become an unofficial barometer of the health of the Chinese economy - and that's where things get interesting.  


Singles' Day serves as an occasion for single people to party with single friends, and for everyone to take part in the online shopping extravanganza.  The holiday was initially only celebrated by young men (hence the name "Bachelors' Day"), but it is now widely celebrated by both genders.  Blind date parties are also popular, as young Chinese people who are acutely aware of their parents' desire for grandchildren attempt to say goodbye to the single life.  


The conflict between traditional Chinese values of family duty and the modern consumer culture

developing in China is poignantly visible on this day: the celebration is in many ways

a reaction to both the pressure to marry young and the pressure to save instead of spend.


The drivers of e-commerce in China - a combination of small sellers and the Alibaba Group behemoth - have capitalized on this holiday with steep discounts meant to entice shoppers, as on Black Friday or Cyber Monday in the US.  Brick and mortar stores also offer sales, but the one-day online sales data have become an important indicator of the growth of the Alibaba Group, which in turn has been seen by some analysts as a useful measure of economic activity in China, where official data can be unreliable.


Unfortunately, as the market looks to online sales for information,

both small sellers and the Alibaba Group are pushed to make as many sales as possible,

and they sometimes resort to sketchy accounting tactics in order to make this possible.  


For example, in 2015 customers were offered discounts through several channels, including at brick and mortar stores, if the customers authorized payment for their goods online on November 11th even if the actual purchase took place in person or on another day.  The need to meet e-commerce sales projections by any means necessary is part of a larger economic and political backdrop in China, where it is the constitutional duty of the government to provide for economic growth.  The failure to do so has serious implications for China's political stability, and the pressure to avoid these implications filters from the sphere of government into financial reporting, making for some interesting shopping, and reading, on Singles's Day.



-- Sarah Donahue and Alex Henderson lead the Fremont Lancaster team, and lived in Shanghai, China for several years.  They enjoy writing about the intersection of culture and business in China as much as making and shipping things around the world.


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