Singles Day—celebrated in China on November 11 each year—was dreamed up in the early 1990s by a group of college students looking to simultaneously commiserate and revel in their single status. They selected the date, 11/11, for its symbolic meaning—not merely the loneliness of the number one, but its visual resemblance to “bare branches,” a Chinese phrase for those who are still unmarried. The day has evolved over time to become something akin to a “treat yourself” holiday, when people purchase presents for themselves and go out to commemorate being single—repurposing the spirit of Valentine’s Day, when couples buy gifts for one another, for the individual.
Of course, given the consumer-centric undertones of the holiday, it wasn’t long before retailers began to take notice, with one in particular launching a massive ad push in 2009. That year, the e-commerce monolith Alibaba began aggressively marketing around the day itself, offering specially-timed “Double 11” deals and bargains via its sites Taobao.com and Tmall.com, much like stores do on Black Friday in the United States. The debut of these promotions coincided with the explosive rise of e-commerce in China, leading to 5,740 percent growth in Alibaba’s “Double 11” sales between 2009 and 2013.