eCommerce: Chinese Consumers & Being Single Over 27

On 11th November 2013 Chinese customers set a new record for an annual 24-hour online sale in honour of Singles’ Day. An event which has been a smash hit since it was appropriated by eCommerce giant, Alibaba in 2009. Kathryn Cave discusses what this phenomenon means in a country where the working age population is fast dwindling, there aren’t enough people for everyone to find a partner… and spending could be the only way out.

The Chinese one child policy and general preference for male children has led to a chronic rise in unwilling bachelors. Much derided in the local culture these are commonly known as “bare branches” and in the 1990s the Singles’ Day tradition began at Nanjing University on 11.11 because the numbers look like the slang. This was the date chosen by Alibaba in 2009 for its massive online discount sale. The message is loud and clear: you may be single, but cheer yourself up with a few bargains…

In China the view of single people over the age of 27 appears to be negative across the board. Leta Hong-Fincher, an American doing a sociology PhD at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the BBC in an article titled Leftover Women, Unmarried at 27: "Ever since 2007, the state media have aggressively disseminated this term [leftover women] in surveys, and news reports, and columns, and cartoons and pictures, basically stigmatising educated women over the age of 27 or 30 who are still single."

For men, towns labelled ‘bachelor villages’ have begun to spring up across rural China. These are populated by males who are unable to find a wife in their local area and who do not have the skills or economic potential to travel to find one.  Tea Leaf Nation presents a bleak future for these individuals, quoting one 36-year old migrant worker who says: "I get very lonely. No one cares about me, and I have no one to speak to when I go home. I sometimes get so drunk that I vomit. When that happens, there's no one to clean up after me."

The numbers of these single men is extremely high with figures of between 10% and 15% of the total population depending on where you look. And things are set to get worse. Many estimate that within the next decade single men are going to hit 30 to 40 million — equivalent to the population of Canada.  

This shortage has resulted in some pretty odd measures. Last year, for example, three Beijing bachelors paid for a giant marriage advert to be posted onto a billboard in China’s version of Silicon Valley. This came in at a cost of 50,000 RMB (8,150 USD) per month, although Gao Weilun, the 30-year old CEO of a local company stressed in the text that he did not want a gold-digger.

Increased competition has, of course, led to an ever increasing emphasis on money. The Atlantic suggested that “contestant Ma Nuo perfectly encapsulated China's mood when she famously declared” on TV show ‘If You Are the One’, that she would "rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle." While a 2011 survey of single women by of single women said “they would not consider a prospective husband who did not own a home.”

Now eCommerce giant Alibaba may have provided the perfect consumer antidote in Singles’ Day. A video on the Telegraph highlights the sheer scale of the event via footage of Alibaba’s control centre. This depicts a massive real-time screen showing purchases flickering across the country. “This really is Alibaba’s creation”, runs the voiceover “before it [Singles’ Day] was a bit of a joke, sad singles cheer themselves up and get themselves a discount online.” 

Over the last four years Singles’ Day has gradually become larger and larger scale and has received massive amounts of international press coverage. And consumers love it, which can only be good publicity for Alibaba which is tipped to IPO shortly. “The discounts are so huge it was definitely worth the wait,” Cindy Wang, a 34-year-old internet executive in Shanghai, who this year held back on buying 3,000 yuan of clothing and bedding till midnight on Nov. 11 told Business Insider. “I can’t remember the last time I bought a big item in a departmental store.”

With this sort of attitude in place across the board, it only took until lunchtime for Chinese shoppers to create a new record for eCommerce sales in one day. “By 1:04pm on Monday, sales on Alibaba, the nation’s largest eCommerce group, reached Rmb19.1bn ($3.1bn) – equivalent to all it had sold on last year’s Singles’ Day and about double what was sold last year on the US Cyber Monday following Thanksgiving,” reported the Financial Times.

“At midnight, this figure had almost doubled to Rmb35bn ($5.7bn),” the FT continued. “[This is] the surest sign yet that China’s affinity with online shopping shows no sign of abating, with the country on track to overtake the US as the world’s largest market for eCommerce.”

“The spectacular growth rate shows the potential for online shopping,” agreed Ronald Wan, chief China adviser at Asian Capital Holdings Ltd on Bloomberg. And this could be exactly the type of initiatives that China needs to boost its economy. The Chinese state media reported on Monday that Premier Li Keqiang praised Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, for creating “a Chinese customer day”. While Jack Ma seconded this in his quote on Twitter: “11.11 isn't about numbers, it's about fostering a healthier consumer environment.”

Interventionist communist party policies may have had a marked impact on the transition of China over the last three decades. But now that economic growth is slowing, most analysts believe that there is a desperate need for many reforms that have been delayed. These include “unleashing market forces, promoting innovation and reducing the role of the state,” all of which should in turn stimulate purchasing by Chinese consumers and help rein in free-spending local governments.

China has curbed its population for 30 years. In this time it has prevented an estimated 400 million births which has resulted in a rapidly aging population and a slew of young people unable to find a partner and have kids of their own.  It does look like China may have reached a crossroads. Now while it may struggle to prop up its economy with workers… at least this younger generation can spend.


Read an interview with Alibaba European Head, James Hardy here. 

Discover more about marketing in China here.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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