In just over a decade Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. turned Singles’ Day, a quirky celebration of Chinese singlehood, into the world’s biggest shopping event, drawing in hundreds of millions of people across the globe. This year’s extravaganza, which features mega-star Taylor Swift, will be closely watched by investors keen to gauge how willing Chinese consumers are to spend as economic growth threatens to slip below 6%, and U.S.-China trade tensions drag on. It’s also the first time up-and-coming Alibaba executive Jiang Fan will oversee the event, after billionaire co-founder Jack Ma stepped down as chairman in September.

1. Why is it called Singles’ Day?

When Nov. 11 is written numerically -- 11/11 -- the four digits evoke “bare branches,” the Chinese expression for the unattached. On Chinese university campuses in the 1990s, 11/11 evolved into a celebration of being single in a culture where young people face heavy parental pressure to get married -- an antidote to Valentine’s Day. The country’s rising middle class turned that into a phenomenon.

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2. Why does it revolve around shopping?

As he began building his company, Ma latched on to the idea of centering a shopping promotion around a holiday, drawing inspiration from the tradition of retailers offering mega-discounts in the U.S. on the day after Thanksgiving (which became Black Friday). His Singles’ Day promotion started in 2009. Early on, consumers were urged to treat themselves in celebration of being single. Soon all demographics were being targeted.

3. Is this exclusively an Alibaba event?

No, plenty of rivals have joined in. JD.com Inc. does promotions, as does Pinduoduo Inc. and a raft of other e-commerce companies. Amazon.com Inc., a bit player in China, started Prime Day in 2015 in the U.S. to drive a similar sort of shopping frenzy.

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4. Is it for Chinese shoppers only?

No. While the mainland dominates sales, Alibaba is trying to make it more global. That means getting foreign brands involved. It’s also working to promote its English-language websites such as the wholesaling platform Alibaba.com. The 2019 edition will again involve AliExpress, which targets consumers outside China, and Lazada, Alibaba’s Southeast Asian operation. Alibaba said it expects more than 500 million people around the world to participate in this year’s Singles’ Day, around 100 million more than in 2018.

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5. How big is Singles’ Day?

Every year has exceeded the one before, with last year’s sales climbing 27% to 213.5 billion yuan ($30.7 billion). That’s on par with the annual output of some small European nations. More merchandise is sold online over the 24-hour period than during the entire, five-day U.S. holiday buying spree that begins on Thanksgiving and ends on Cyber Monday. Most of the buying in China was via Taobao and Tmall, Alibaba’s main shopping sites.

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6. What’s different this year?

As the U.S.-China trade war drags on, a survey in October suggested a surge in patriotism could spur Chinese consumers to boycott some U.S. brands. A slowing Chinese economy also could curb consumers’ enthusiasm. On the lighter side, Alibaba will stage a star-studded gala with Swift, Chinese pop singer G.E.M. and others to pump sales. The company has significantly boosted the brick-and-mortar element of Singles’ Day by accelerating its investments in malls, convenience stores and food delivery services -- part of what it calls its “new retail” initiative. Ma -- who never shies from the stage -- oversaw his brainchild for the final time in 2018. In stepping down, he handed the reins to his protégé, Daniel Zhang, who put Jiang in charge of Singles’ Day. Jiang is president of Taobao and Tmall and a potential successor to Zhang.

--With assistance from Laurence Arnold.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lulu Yilun Chen in Hong Kong at ychen447@bloomberg.net;Robert Fenner in Hong Kong at rfenner@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net, Colum Murphy, Paul Geitner

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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