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World & Nation

Forget Black Friday: Alibaba’s Singles Day sets online shopping record

Beijing mom Wang Rongrong is married, but each year she eagerly looks forward to China’s “Singles Day.”

After putting her 1-year-old son Momo to sleep, Wang got in front of her computer and began her four-hour countdown to China’s equivalent of Black Friday. With about 100 items saved in her shopping cart on Alibaba’s Taobao.com, Wang was ready for her annual online shopping battle.

Since 2009, Chinese consumers have been flocking to Alibaba’s online shopping websites Taobao.com and Tmall.com on Nov. 11, also known as Singles Day in China, for heavily discounted products.

The “holiday” began as a sort of a consumerist anti-Valentine’s Day for the solo set, with the 11-11 date providing numerical emphasis on “one.” In recent years, it’s morphed into the biggest online shopping day of the year in China. Alibaba has even registered multiple trademarks associated with the day.

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Alibaba said total transaction volume Tuesday on its Tmall.com platform alone was $9.3 billion, up sharply from $5.7 billion a year ago. The company did not release similar figures for its Taobao website.

Unlike Black Friday, when many people are shopping for Christmas gifts for friends and family, Singles Day shoppers often buy practical items for themselves.

Wang, 33, took the opportunity to get a wide range of products for her family and friends. “I bought diapers, toys and child safety doors for my son,” she said. “I also got shampoo and detergent for our family. And for my friends and former clients, I got cosmetics for the women and belts for the men as gifts.” She spent around $490.

Alibaba does not sell the products on its websites directly to consumers. Rather, it offers a platform for individual merchants to reach Chinese shoppers – similar to what eBay does for American consumers. So discounts vary from vendor to vendor. And most sellers do not release the final prices of their products until Singles Day starts at midnight.

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In previous years, the crush of Internet traffic has led to epic slowdowns, forcing consumers to wait hours as pages loaded slowly or not at all.

Wang prepared by putting 100 items in her online shopping cart, but ended up purchasing only 25 items that she felt were sufficiently discounted. She said most of the products were 20% to 30% off, with some vendors offering up to a 50% discount.

For an experienced online shopper like Wang, who started to use Alibaba’s Taobao.com as early as 2004 and has placed more than 10,000 orders online -- earning her a five-diamond member status -- it still took about 90 minutes to complete all her transactions. Still, that was an improvement over prior years, she said.

“I feel this year Alibaba is more prepared for the amount of traffic on its systems,” Wang said. “In previous years, I either couldn’t open the page of the products I wanted, or I simply couldn’t pay for the products I placed an order for. But this year, I was able to complete all my orders on Alibaba’s websites without issues.”

This year, Alibaba introduced various measures to help smooth transactions. For example, vendors were encouraged to allow consumers to place orders for products -- and learn their discount percentage in advance -- if they made a small down payment. In Wang’s case, she made down payments on 10 of the 25 items she bought. On Tuesday, she just needed to pay the rest of the predetermined price after 6 a.m.

Alibaba also encouraged consumers to add money to their accounts on Alipay, a PayPal-like payment service from the company. That eliminated the need for electronic verification between banks and payment systems. Wang put more than $500 in her Alipay account to cover her expected expenses Tuesday.

But for popular products like a winter jacket from Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo, consumers still had to fight for a chance to buy at a 50% discount.

“I had the jacket’s page open on my computer before midnight and tried to click on the order button as soon as the clock hit 12 a.m.,” said Claire Wu, a 29-year-old sales clerk from a pharmaceutical company in Beijing. “But it always said the product is out of stock and please try again in 15 minutes.”

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After trying for over an hour, Wu gave up and went to bed without the jacket she was coveting for weeks. “I wanted to buy this silver gray color jacket for a long time. I even went to a retail store to try out the right size for myself,” she said.

Some companies are trying to piggyback on Singles Day. Dealmoon.com, a shopping website aimed at Chinese Americans, recently launched a special page for discounts on Nov. 11.

But some Chinese consumers are starting to have second thoughts about whether they actually need the products they furiously rush to buy on Singles Day. A popular post on Chinese social media website Weibo this year tells the story of a heroic old man who cut the power to his neighborhood on Singles Day to save his neighbors from the online shopping frenzy.

“It’s midnight, but all the buildings in the neighborhood still had their lights on,” a Weibo user from Hainan province wrote in the post. “It was a kind of quiet brightness. There was no noise from the TV or stereo systems, no quarrels between husbands and wives. What you could hear was the sound of mice clicking.

“The old man who works as a security guard for the neighborhood decided to cut off the power for the whole neighborhood. That night, this kind old man saved millions for the residents of this neighborhood.”

Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.


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