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Forget Black Friday, the world's biggest shopping day, by far, is today, Singles' Day, in China.

Editorial Staff

It all started as a bit of propaganda. Young Chinese who were not in settled relationships were fed up with being marked out as being a bit "odd." So they announced "Singles' Day" (a day for singles) to celebrate the fact that millions of Chinese are, well, single. Retailers, in the mid-year doldrums after all the various festivals have finished and with several months to go to Chinese New Year, got behind the idea with special offers and promotions. Within a couple of years, aided by the fact that the target audience is tech-savvy, it's turned into the world's biggest shopping day, dwarfing even the famed "Black Friday" in the USA.

Guanggun Jie ( 光棍节 ) is a sales day like no other. It's proof of the power of the cult, of lemming mentality and of .. despite what they say .. a need for belonging. Alibaba, China's biggest online marketing platform (and bigger than any other single platform in any single country) has been an inevitable beneficiary. How and why is that so?

Singles' Day might not be a "movement" but it is a fashion. In a drab world (not that China is anywhere near as drab is it was a decade ago), it's a bright light, a bit of fun that's disassociated from religious festivals and state promoted holidays. For each person, it's a statement of individuality. But the participation of tens of millions of people have turned it into something akin to a cult, a word that is not chosen lightly.

Imagine, in the West, the pressure that is put on the young over St Valentine's Day. It has turned into a frenzy of attempts to satisfy expectations and into a competitive environment. Singles' Day, in theory, avoids that by each person focussing on their own desires rather than on someone else's - and therefore avoids the risk of disappointment and failure. It is hedonistic consumerism at its purest.

As a retail event, it's an enormous success. But it is on-line, from both urban and country customers, that sees the biggest boom. Those who don't have, or don't want to make the time, to go to shops, and those for whom large ranges of shops are not easily accessible, the advent of an effective and inexpensive national telecommunications network, the creation of what amounts to a shopping centre in the palm of your hand, have taken to the fad in unprecedented numbers: there is a generation of people who want a bargain, want convenience and who have at last got access to a consumerism that, for many reasons, was until the last few years, impossible.

This morning, Alibaba announced that it had made sales amounting to USD1,000 million IN THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES of Singles' Day. In 2015, Alibaba made more than USD91,000 million in sales in the 24 hour period.

Other online sites, both single shop and platforms, are attacking the market with huge discounts and promos, although how special some special offers are is open to question.

But Alibaba is going one stage further: it is exporting Singles' Day, aping those greetings card etc. companies that have created special days for all kinds of things. Alibaba has co-opted Western stars of screen and music to promote its event globally. And this year's a good year to do it: the yuan is relatively weak against several western currencies (not the pound, though, which is in its own special hell-hole) so purchases from Chinese vendors are, in relative terms, even cheaper for overseas buyers. And it's doing it the other way, too, which special arrangements with Macy's in New York and Otaku Mode in Tokyo being promoted on the platform for Chinese customers.

Recently, Alibaba bought South East Asia platform Lazada in pursuit of his aim to generate half of Alibaba's revenue from outside China by 2025. While Lazada's website does not mention "Singles' Day, it does promote a "one day only" event called "Online Revolution" in which many items are shown at half a "list price" although, in Malaysia, special offers are often discounts against artificial non-offer prices. There is also a special area called "overseas deals" for which many articles shown originate in China. The platform has managed a coup, taking over Tesco Malaysia's non-food online shopping platform.

Alibaba's notable recent purchases include the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading broadsheet newspaper.

While the concept of Singles' Day might seem a bit lame for some people, it has the potential to become a global phenomenon as "bare branches" (the direct translation of the Chinese name) join in. Oddly, the one thing that no one seems to be offering is singles mingles. Now there's an idea for next year.

Let's face it: that's a nicer idea than the current underlying message which amounts to "make yourself happy by buying stuff."