One could definitely be forgiven for not having heard of Singles Day, though in China the festival is something of a modern phenomenon.
Said to have sprung from Nanjing University in 1993, the festival is a day to celebrate singledom.
People celebrate each year on 11 November. As the 11th day of the 11th month, there are lots of ones in 11 November. As there are with single people.
However, what started as an occasion for single people to party with single friends and organise blind-date parties has become a major shopping holiday.
The festival (currently celebrated only in China) has become the largest online shopping day in the world.
That’s mostly thanks to online shopping brands focusing on offering discounts and savings to young customers, the same ones who are celebrating Singles Day.
The Alibaba Group who operate Taobao (an eBay-like consumer-to-consumer online marketplace) and Tmall (a business-to-consumer variant of Taobao) made over $17.8bn in 2016 on Singles Day alone.
That makes it 18 times bigger than Amazon’s Prime Day promotion. It’s also over 2.5 times bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales combined.
The sale started in 2009 with just 27 merchants offering discounts. This year 140,000 merchants will take part in the 24-day promotion.
Of those, 60,000 will be international sellers and some 15m products will be discounted.
While the festival is mainly focused on the Chinese market, 235 countries and regions will be involved in the event’s cross-border transactions.
And 37 percent of buyers bought from international brands and merchants. Apple, Nike, New Balance, Playboy, Sketchers, Siemens, Philips, Adidas, Jack Jones, and Only were among the top international brands in pure sales numbers.
11.11 Global Shopping Festival Countdown Gala
Alongside the festival itself is the Countdown Gala which has become something of a tradition in its own right. The star-studded event is designed to turn shopping into an entertainment event in and of itself.
This year musician and producer Pharrell with be headling the 11.11 Countdown festival.
Other confirmed celebrities include singer-songwriter Jessie J, tennis legend Maria Sharapova and Real Madrid footballer Luis Figo.
According to Alibaba though, over 100 major celebrities will attend the red-carpet festival on the evening of 10 November. They’ve hinted that there are further major celebrities lined up.
Some of the more minor acts include Victoria’s Secret Angel Lais Ribeiro, Irish dance phenomenon Riverdance, performance artists from Blue Man Group, robot rock band Compressorhead, as well as Chinese stars including Karen Mok, Zhang Ziyi and pianist Lang Lang.
Alibaba-owned Taobao app and also on the Youku streaming site will live-stream the gala to viewers at home.
In addition, Chinese television will broadcast the countdown on Beijing TV, Zhejiang TV and Shenzhen TV. And the live-streams and broadcasts are really where the Countdown Gala gets interesting.
A tech-led shopping revolution
Alibaba are really placing tech at the heart of their shopping festival, even within the gala itself. Jianping Tsai, who leads the gala’s technology design aims to give viewers at home the same experience as they’d get by attending the festival. He explained:
“For the first time we are bringing 3D motion capture technology to the phones of Chinese consumers, recording in real-time the movement, and even facial expressions, of celebrities, which is then efficiently compressed into a single, encryped 20-megabyte file. Through merging augmented reality with 360-degree virtual reality panorama, audiences could see and interact with celebrities, face-to-face, in their own homes—a zero distance, multi-angle projected AR experience.
“Tmall’s 11.11 Countdown Celebration has become one of the best known commercial events in the world. At the same time, we want this to be a stage to show the world our cutting-edge technology and the innovative ways Tmall has been as it merges together business, technology and retail.”
Audience members watching the festival at home will find themselves in so-called virtual audience stalls. These stalls are made possible through AR technology and computer animation.
But that’s just the start of it all.
Festival freebies and fun from the comfort of your own home
One of the major parts of the Countdown Gala (aside from all the celebrities involved) is the competitions and gifts.
Attendees find themselves showered with chances to win and red envelope packets, a traditional way of receiving money in China.
However, Alibaba wants to ensure that viewers at home do not miss out on the festival atmosphere.
Mobile viewers will get to be involved in plenty of interactive content through their smartphones. Last year, viewers won clothing worn by celebrities and red packets worth $755 through mobile interaction.
This year looks set to continue the trend, and take things even further.
And even if viewers are watching on a television, they won’t necessarily miss out. When the hosts of the telecast announce a giveaway, TV stations will simultaneously send out signals to consumers via satellite.
Viewers should then be able to simply shake their phones to gain access to the interactive content without downloading any additional apps.
Producer David Hill, former president of Fox Sports, who produced the show, spoke to Alibaba’s personal news site Alizila about the gala:
“If you analyse why we are doing the show, it’s to turn shopping into sport and to make shopping into entertainment, so the show has got to reflect that philosophy. And the way the show is constructed—with so many segments, so many stars and fun bits — it reflects the overreaching theme of what Single’s Day has become.
“It is truly remarkable. We can do things in China we can’t do virtually anywhere else in the world. In America, if you stream to any more than one or two million people you get a swirling circle of death, meaning it’s not connecting. In China, we can stream to over 35m people. It boggles the mind.”
How big will this year’s numbers be?
Obviously the folks at Alibaba are doing all this to make money. If the trend they’ve created over the past few years is anything to go by that could mean generating over $20bn this time around. However, what’s more interesting is the kind of shopping as entertainment culture they’re creating.
Last year, 400,000,000 people viewed the show 11.11 Global Shopping Festival Countdown Gala.
To put that in context, the all-time record for the Super Bowl viewing figures was 2015, where 114.4m viewers tuned in. Suffice to say, the 11.11 Countdown Gala is one hell of a television event.
If the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival Countdown Gala grows any larger, it will eclipse the moon landings which had an estimated 600m viewers worldwide.
In addition, the technology used to make viewing the gala possible will almost certainly have global ramifications. In the Western world we’ve seen a few forays into proper television and mobile interaction but nothing close to this scale.