HANGZHOU, China – Unmarried men across China used to spend Nov. 11 lamenting their single status with a drink. Now that unofficial holiday has become the world's largest online shopping event.
On Monday, China's biggest online shopping company processed more than $5.75 billion in its online payments system — a record for a single day anywhere in the world, surpassing by 2 1/2 times the total for American retailers last year on so-called Cyber Monday.
The company, Alibaba, which owns Tmall and other e-commerce sites, first latched onto so-called Singles' Day, symbolized by the four lonely 1s of 11/11, five years ago. The company realized men could just as easily seek solace by buying electronic devices and other gear on its sites. Soon enough, just about everyone else did, too.
Alibaba reported Monday that it had 402 million unique visitors to its sites — more than a third of the adult population in China — and prepared 152 million parcels for shipping. Tmall.com, one of Alibaba's shopping sites, said Chinese bought 1.6 million bras, which it helpfully noted would reach three times the height of Mount Everest if folded and stacked, and 2 million pairs of underpants, which if linked together would stretch 1,800 miles, all before the lunch hour.
At 55tuan.com, a Groupon-style site, men were offered a bride-hunting trip to Vietnam: "Singles, don't shed tears!" it said. "55tuan.com will send you to Vietnam to find true love!"
Like Veterans Day sales in the United States, Singles' Day promotions retain little connection with the people or events that inspired it. As a red letter day for shoppers, it has spread beyond lonely hearts to Chinese consumers of all kinds — single or married.
China's one-day shopping craze heralds the frenetic growth of Internet shopping in that country. China is set to overtake the United States this year as the largest online shopping market in the world, according to Forrester Research. Chinese consumers are expected to spend $290 billion at online retail sites this year, compared to $260 billion for their American counterparts.
China's enthusiasm for online shopping is expected to continue to grow faster than that of the United States. Bain, a global consulting firm, expects online shopping in China to grow at an annual rate of 32 percent from this year through 2015.
That is slower than the fevered pace of 71 percent recorded from 2009 through 2012. But it is still well above the 13 percent average rate expected for 2009 through 2015 in the United States. In 2015, the firm forecasts e-commerce in China will total $500 billion.
"Chinese consumers are bargain-hunters, and that is what is driving the success of 11/11," said Serge Hoffmann, a partner at Bain in Hong Kong.
While it was Alibaba that turned Singles' Day into a shopping event, other e-commerce companies are getting in on the action. Dangdang.com, another retailer, tried to get a jump on Alibaba by starting its 11/11 sale three days early.
Global firms jumped in, too. Giants like Nike, Adidas, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Samsung Electronics conducted Singles' Day promotions, many of them using Tmall. Western companies have eagerly embraced e-commerce as a way to sell to Chinese shoppers in remote areas, where few of them have brick-and-mortar stores.
Jeremy Webb, a digital expert at Ogilvy Public Relations in Beijing, said some of the firm's clients sought to generate 15 to 30 percent of their annual sales on Singles' Day alone. To do so, some accept extremely low profit margins or sell at a loss.
For Alibaba, which has been preparing for an initial public offering, a major benefit of Singles' Day is publicity, a spokesman, Yan Qiao, said.
"We are not thinking about how much profit Alibaba could achieve at all," Yan said. "The biggest value it gives us is that the festival always can create the record of one-day gross merchandise value on Tmall.com."
Singles' Day has been so successful that it has already given rise to a sequel. Even as online retailers tally their receipts from 11/11, some of them are preparing for another manufactured e-commerce event: "Double 12" on Dec. 12.