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Chinese online shoppers shatter Cyber Monday records on ‘Double 11’

A big screen in Shanghai shows the online sales in China surpassed RMB 100 billion, or $14 billion, within an hour after the Singles Day shopping frenzy began at midnight on Sunday. (Associated Press)

BEIJING — China’s “Double 11” day makes the United States’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday look tame. In the first 68 seconds of Nov. 11, Chinese consumers had spent $1 billion snapping up bargains online. Within the first hour, they’d spent $14.3 billion — about half the total recorded last year during the Thanksgiving shopping season in the United States.

Even though the Chinese economy is flagging — or perhaps because the Chinese economy is flagging — consumers are eager for bargains on the most frenzied shopping day of the year.

“There were so many discounts available that it makes me feel that I have to buy something, or I would be missing out big-time,” said Zhang Hui, 31, who works at a public-relations firm in Beijing. She snapped up a pair of boots and an overcoat on Taobao for a total of $142.

Nov. 11 has long been celebrated in Asia as “singles’ day” — because the 11/11 date looks like four singles — and has been commandeered in Japan and South Korea by Pocky and Peppero, respectively, the makers of chocolate sticks that look like ones. It is marketed as a kind of anti-Valentine’s Day, where singles can spend on themselves.

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China began marking the day in the 1990s, when university students celebrated being single on the day, known here as “Double 11.”

But in 2009, e-commerce giant Alibaba started marketing it as the best day of the year to go crazy on its shopping websites, Taobao and Tmall. Many people now stock up on household goods in particular, buying a year’s worth of shampoo or toilet paper on Nov. 11, when online retailers offer discounts and coupons.

Retail giant Alibaba says sales were up about 25% in the first nine hours of “Singles' Day,” by far the world's biggest online shopping fest. (Video: Reuters)

“Our goal is to stimulate consumption demand and support lifestyle upgrades in China through new brands and products,” Fan Jiang, president of Taobao and Tmall, said in the lead-up to the shopping day.

The Chinese economy has been cooling markedly in recent years, with growth slowing to a 30-year low of 6.2 percent, according to the most recent official statistics.

To whip up excitement for this year’s shopping frenzy, Alibaba had American singer Taylor Swift headline its 11.11 Countdown Gala, which was broadcast live on television. Swift performed three songs in a Technicolor extravaganza at a Shanghai stadium.

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The numbers racked up on China’s biggest shopping day of the year are mind-boggling.

Alibaba said it hoped Taobao, its main shopping portal where online store owners offer their wares, would attract more than 500 million users on Nov. 11, or 100 million more than last year. Alibaba’s cloud computing system, Aliyun, was processing 540,000 transactions per second at one point on Monday morning.

Before 8 a.m., Alibaba’s logistics arm had dispatched more than 100 million packages of preordered goods. The State Post Bureau said it expected to handle 2.8 billion packages this week, up a quarter from last year. That’s two packages for every single person in China.

Some small-store owners make a large percentage of their annual sales on Nov. 11. One retailer, Nanjiren, sold 166,119 four-packs of men’s underwear, offered at less than half price at $7, by 4 p.m.

Three Squirrels sold 800,000 sets of assorted nuts — macadamias, cashews and acorns, with sunflower seeds — by cutting the price from $7 to $4.

More than 12 million people watched American reality TV star Kim Kardashian live-streaming with Chinese influencer Viya on Tmall on Thursday to promote her KKW beauty line. She sold 15,000 bottles of perfume in seconds, according to Alibaba.

Even secondhand car dealers were getting in on the act, although the discounts were not as steep. One was offering a Singles Day discount of $30 off a $113,000 Porsche Cayenne SUV.

By 5 p.m., Alibaba’s measure of sales — gross merchandise volume — had surpassed the 2018 day total of $30.8 billion. By comparison, American retailers sold $7.9 billion worth of goods on Cyber Monday last year.

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Cathy Tu, 45, an education consultant, dropped more than $700 on Taobao in the first hour of Singles Day. She bought Beats X earphones by Dr. Dre, Givenchy perfume and skin-care products for herself, baseball caps and a scarf for her teenage daughter, and toilet paper, toothpaste and other household goods.

“Daily necessities are a real bargain at Singles Day sales: I used store-exclusive coupons and across-the-platform discounts, and saved extra money on preorders,” Tu said while showing her shopping list on her phone.

“Some people are shopping out of peer pressure or obsessive-compulsive habits, but I am not; I buy because I really need them,” she said.

Others admitted they were buying on impulse.

Erin Chan, 28, an interpreter visiting from Los Angeles, also joined the shopping carnival. She bought a selfie stick, Korean fashion accessories, leather bags, sweaters and a camera stabilizer for vlog-making.

“I’m not sure how much I have saved, because I didn’t know their original prices to start with,” Chan said. “One thing that I know for sure is that they cost so much less than in America.”

She even thought about buying a Chinese-brand mini-fridge but realized that was a bad idea when she thought about how she would get it home.

Other online shopping sites, including JD.com and Pinduoduo, were also offering deals, but were small beer compared to Taobao. JD.com opened its first physical store, a megapolis covering 12 acres, in the southwestern city of Chongqing at the stroke of midnight on Sunday. About 10,000 people were waiting to rush through the doors.

But environmentalists are alarmed by the amount of packaging produced on this one day, with Greenpeace estimating the day could generate more than 250,000 tons of waste. Alibaba has said that it is aware of environmental concerns and that it would be “greener than ever” this Nov. 11.

“Given its scale, minimizing environmental impact is essential and our technology will ensure it is a green 11.11 Global Shopping Festival,” Fan said in a statement late last month.

The pressure is also mounting on the people who have to schlep all these parcels to front doors. Delivery companies have hired an additional 400,000 workers to get goods to customers, and have increased incentives for the already-beleaguered fleets of motorbike couriers.

Liu Ying, a deliveryman for Taobao affiliate Cainiao, was juggling two phones trying to send delivery updates and answer calls while delivering packages Monday afternoon.

“This is only the start, but my co-workers and I are already feeling the pressure,” said Liu, who had been out delivering since early in the morning.

“The next three or four days will be the busiest time of the year for us, with longer working hours than usual, too,” Liu said. “I think our workload is going to be as heavy as, or even worse than, today for at least 10 more days.”

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