China's Singles Day

Linda Yueh
Chief business correspondent

image copyrightAP

China's Singles Day is a modern twist on Valentine's Day with lucrative results for China's biggest e-commerce companies. Sales online in China have exceeded the two biggest shopping days in the US combined. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are dwarfed by the estimated $5bn from one single day of shopping in China.

Today, 11 November, is China's Singles Day. For the millions of singletons out there, it's an excuse to splurge on yourself… online.

This version of the traditional Valentine's Day was begun by the e-commerce giant Alibaba, which does not sell merchandise itself but offers a platform for vendors through Tmall and Taobao. Alibaba though offers an online payments system, which helps Chinese consumers buy online. The online payments infrastructure, like many parts of the financial sector, is underdeveloped. It's why Alipay has proved to be an important part of Alibaba's business. Alibaba dominates this day, where its platforms account for some 70% of the sales.

It's not a surprise that online Chinese shoppers in one sense can outspend that of Americans since they are about equal in number. Both nations have about 270 million. But, the internet penetration in China is only around 45% and, of course, they have about another billion people who can get into the spending habit.

But, in another sense, given that Chinese incomes are one-seventh of that the US, it is rather a surprise. It reveals how misleading averages can be, since China has a highly unequal income distribution, even more so than the US.

What is apparent though is that the growth in online shopping in China has benefited technology firms. Alibaba is currently not publicly traded, though its upcoming IPO is much anticipated. Its rival Tencent, which is listed, has seen its shares rise by more than 60% this year.

Given the lucrativeness and perhaps relative ease of buying for oneself, I wouldn't be surprised if Singles Day starts to appear in calendars around the world.