Beijing (Mashable) — China’s Singles’ Day, otherwise known as the world’s biggest online shopping event, was bigger and better this year, going by the numbers of its lead online shopping sites.
Alibaba said that by mid-day on Wednesday, it already crossed the amount it made last year of $9.3 billion in sales across its sites. Alibaba.com is a business-to-business trading platform primarily used by small firms, and the Alibaba Group also runs Taobao, a consumer marketplace.
It said that sales on its sites exceeded $5 billion in only the first 90 minutes. By Wednesday evening, its unaudited total sales, measured in gross merchandise volume, had reached nearly $12 billion.
China’s largest online direct sales company, JD.com, also reported a record-breaking Singles’ Day on Wednesday. It said order volumes on its website had reached over 14 million by noon, surpassing last year’s total sales for the firm.
JD.com has about one-quarter of China’s ecommerce market and appeals to some customers because its direct sales approach helps to ensure quality, whereas many more third-party sellers use Alibaba’s platforms, according to analysts.
Chinese shoppers, who are used to buying pretty much everything online, purchased 350,000 liters of milk, 1.2 million bottles of herbal tea and 75,000 bottles of cooking oil on JD.com by 9 am, according to the firm.
The record amounts spent in China on Singles’ Day might suggest consumers aren’t fearful of an economic slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. More than 70% of sales so far on Wednesday morning came from Alibaba’s and rival JD.com’s mobile sites, showing that both online shopping and smartphone use has become ingrained in the country.
Some 5,000 overseas brands and 40,000 online merchants took part in the shopping holiday this year, offering about six million different kinds of products across different e-commerce websites, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Singles’ Day started in the 1990s as a sort of an anti-Valentine’s Day where young people would celebrate being single. It takes place on November 11 each year because the four 1’s in a row of the date resemble what the Chinese call bachelors: “bare sticks”.
In 2009, Alibaba started promoting the day as an opportunity for singles to buy stuff online to treat themselves. Since then, other e-commerce companies have offered their own Singles’ Day discounts.
Last year’s $9.34 billion worth of sales on Alibaba was triple the $2.68 billion in sales by all U.S. merchants combined on America’s e-commerce counterpart, Cyber Monday.
Many consumers told Mashable that they had been eagerly waiting for Singles’ Day to arrive to make a large number of purchases. ”I will buy electronics, clothes and groceries from Taobao and expect to save hundreds of yuan,” said Zhao Jinghong, a 25-year-old nurse.
“I don’t have a car in Beijing, so it’s very convenient to have things delivered right to my door,” Zhao said.
Chinese consumers tend to buy a much wider variety of goods online than Western consumers, in part because they say product selection from traditional brick-and-mortar stores can be lacking.
“I make 80% of my total purchases online including almost all my clothes. It is convenient to return things that don’t fit so that’s not a problem,” said Xue Chang, a psychologist.
“I am from Beijing and I’m now living in Nanjing, so I often miss the food from Beijing and order snacks online,” said Xue.
The retail therapy may help to alleviate China’s economic woes. China’s economy grew 7.3% in 2014, the weakest expansion in 24 years. Analysts say the country is struggling to meet its lowered growth target for 2015 of about 7%.
China’s leadership says they hope to transition the economy away from over-reliance on manufacturing toward a growth model driven by consumption, investment and sectors such as service and tourism.
Alibaba has also been clamping down on the sale of fake and shoddy goods on its online marketplaces, prompted by pressure from Chinese law enforcement agencies. Last year, it cooperated with the authorities in over 1,000 counterfeiting cases, leading to hundreds of arrests.
Singles’ Day may be wrapped up with a festive bow, but it carries a darker meaning. In China’s it’s also known as Bachelors’ Day because of the gender imbalance caused by China’s controversial one-child policy and the traditional preference to have sons.
Although the government outlawed sex-selective abortion in the late 1980s, experts say sex-selective abortion is the main reason why there are nearly 116 men for every 100 women in China.
The one-child policy was introduced in the 1970s to slow the nation’s population explosion. Without the policy China would have about 300 million more people now, according to some estimates. China announced last month that it would abolish its one-child policy and allow all married couples to have two children.
The end of China’s one-child policy could lead to an estimated additional 3 million children born each year, national family planning authorities said Tuesday.
Alibaba has spared no expense to hype up Singles Day this year, which the firm bills as the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival in its international promotional materials. The company’s Singles Day celebrations are taking place this year at the “Water Cube”, as the Beijing National Aquatics Centre and former 2008 Summer Olympics venue is known among locals.
James Bond actor Daniel Craig joined Alibaba CEO Jack Ma onstage at a launch gala at the Water Cube on Tuesday night, where Craig threw in a plug for his upcoming movie Spectre.
Actor Kevin Spacey also put in a video appearance at the gala, dressed in character as politician Frank Underwood in the TV series House of Cards.
“Good evening to the great people of China. I am the 45th president of the United States, Frank J. Underwood. And tonight, I wanted to take a moment to say hello to all of you out there to wish you a happy Singles Day,” Spacey said in the cringe-inducing video.