Nov 14, 2018 09:07 AM

Unwrapping the Truth Behind ‘Double 11’ Shopping Extravaganza

Imagine the following dialogue taking place on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas:

“So, Carol, what did you get this year?”

“Diapers. Twenty boxes, in fact. They were 20% off, and little Harry goes through them so quickly. How about you, Marie?”

“I just got some laundry detergent. It was only a few pennies off, so not really worth getting much.”

Such talk may not sound much like Christmas, when giving gifts like model trains, video game consoles and the latest electronic gadgets are more par for the course versus such ordinary items more suited to a grocery shopping cart. But that’s exactly the kind of stuff that Chinese shoppers appear to be stocking up on during “Double 11,” which e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba likes to bill as China’s answer to the fast-approaching Black Friday shopping binge when Western shoppers begin buying in earnest for Christmas.

After years of listening to “Double 11” hype, I thought I would take some time this week to try to get to the bottom of this made-in-China shopping fest, which despite its brief time in the headlines each year is still largely a mystery for most Westerners. That’s partly because few of us foreigners participate in the online shopping binge that took place this past Sunday, Nov. 11, which is also known as Singles Day.

Understanding the mindset of the millions of online shoppers who take part in the buying frenzy is key to getting a handle on what this festival means, including its contribution to companies’ top and bottom lines and also whether it may have the same kind of staying power as Black Friday in the West.

Before we go into any of that, let’s step back briefly and quickly introduce Double 11 for the uninitiated. The idea for celebrating Nov. 11 as Singles Day was apparently hatched by some students at Nanjing University in 1993 to celebrate their singledom, in a society where young people feel intense pressure to get married and start families while still in their 20s. They chose the date Nov. 11 because of the four “1” numerals in the date’s 11-11 shorthand, underscoring its “singleness.”

The date lived in relative obscurity until a decade ago, when Alibaba was trying to drum up sales and decided to make it into a promotional event and excuse for people to consume more. The idea was the brainchild of Daniel Zhang, who has since become Alibaba’s CEO and is now heir apparent after founder Jack Ma’s planned retirement as chairman next year. The rest is pretty much history, and the holiday has grown by leaps and bounds to surpass even Black Friday in terms of goods purchased during the festival. At this point pretty much all of China’s major e-commerce companies, including not only Alibaba but also and Suning, among many others, hold major Double 11 promotions.

The numbers are indeed quite impressive. Alibaba booked a record 213.5 billion yuan ($30.7 billion) worth of goods sold over its platforms during the 24 hour period. No. 2 player booked a total of 159.8 billion yuan in sales during Double 11 and the 10 preceding days.

Money trail

I’ll be the first to admit I’m just a tad skeptical about Double 11, including how real the numbers are and whether the buying fest has any staying power. At the same time, all of my impressions were really just based on anecdotes and not anything more substantive, which prompted me to do a little sleuthing to try and understand this particular festival just a bit better.

To do that, I analyzed Alibaba’s fourth-quarter financial report and compared it with that from U.S. rival Amazon, since both Double 11 and Black Friday conveniently fall squarely in the fourth calendar quarter of each year. I also conducted my own poll on WeChat asking people whether they shop on Double 11, and if they did, then what their shopping habits were like. That’s where my imaginary dialogue at the start of this column comes in, though more on that shortly.

We’ll start with the big picture, which seems to show some similarities between Black Friday and Double 11 at the highest level. Both companies earned a nearly identical 34% of their total annual revenue during the fourth quarter, with Alibaba reporting 73 billion yuan from its e-commerce business to Amazon’s $41 billion from product sales. Profit varied a bit more, with Alibaba earning 36% of its full-year profit in the year’s final quarter versus Amazon’s much higher 63%.

In this case revenue does seem like the better place for comparisons, since that’s directly tied to actual sales. So perhaps this shows that Double 11 really is stacking up as a big deal for China the way Black Friday is in the West, even if the far lower profits might imply Amazon is doing higher-margin business during the holiday season.

The relative underrepresentation of big-ticket buying during Double 11 is certainly borne out in my unscientific poll, which got about 10 responses that yielded a few key messages. Of those who responded, half seemed to take pride in telling me they didn’t participate in Double 11 this year at all, which seems to speak to the festival’s potential lack of staying power.

Among the other half, nearly all said their Double 11 shopping consisted mostly of daily items like laundry detergent and diapers that they would otherwise buy at other times if not for Double 11 deals. Only one person said he made a few purchases on Double 11 that he wouldn’t otherwise make, which seems in strong contrast to Christmas where just the opposite is usually true.

A typical case was one of my former students who is now the mother of a 3-year-old in the city of Hangzhou. She spent 1,434 yuan during Double 11 this year on household things like diapers and infant formula for her toddler, and nutritional supplements for her parents and in-laws. Hardly holiday fare. But perhaps that’s just the point during China’s homegrown shopping day that seems lacking in much festivity and has really just become an excuse for everyday shoppers to hunt for bargains.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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