MinXi Fu of West Hartford was up at 3 in the morning Tuesday to take advantage of a consumer-centric holiday from China that takes its name from the four digits in the date — 18.104.22.168 — Singles' Day.
China's largest e-commerce company, Alibaba, in 2009 turned the holiday into the "11.11 Shopping Festival," now the biggest online shopping day in the world.
Cyber Monday? Forget about it. Alibaba's sales volume reached $9.3 billion late Tuesday in China. Last year, American consumers spent a total of $2.9 billion on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined, according to Business Insider.
Fu didn't plan to shop on Alibaba's website, Taobao — similar to eBay and Amazon — until late Monday in the U.S., but she ended up staying online for six hours looking for clothes. All items on the site were at least half off and were offered with free worldwide shipping, she said.
A friend named Dihui Yang was visiting. "Huihui [Dihui] kept asking me, 'Let's go check it out! Let's go check it out,'" Fu said in Mandarin Chinese, laughing. "So I started looking at every single item from an online store she recommended. And I wanted to buy everything there."
She fell asleep after 3 a.m. — 4 p.m. Beijing time — and woke up two hours later to find that she forgot to submit the order for a shirt and a sweater she chose in her shopping cart earlier. But those items were gone.
A regular shopper on Taobao, Fu said it was very alluring to find deals one-fourth of their original prices. She would have prepared herself better, such as saving more credits on her Alipay, Alibaba's online payment escrow service, if Alibaba advertised the retail event better in the U.S.
Originally, the holiday was started in 1993 for young people in Mainland China to celebrate being single. But Fu and other hundreds of millions of other Chinese shoppers worldwide celebrated the day shopping for bargains.
Alibaba made this year's sales day global, reaching shoppers with 27,000 online vendors, including the American clothing company Zara, in more than 200 countries.
But they hadn't reached a handful of people interviewed at Westfarms Mall and A Dong Supermarket, both in West Hartford. They said they were unaware of the event even though they have families in China.
In New Haven, Sarah Ficca, a manager of Fashionista Vintage & Variety, said she had heard of Singles' Day and would be glad to see the Chinese tradition merge with the American shopping season in future.
Ted Fishman of Chicago, author of "China Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges China and the World," shopped for a special cellphone battery case made in China the day before Singles' Day. He couldn't find it on Amazon and turned to Alibaba. On the Chinese website, he discovered the item for under $20, offered in 12 colors.
"So the idea of heading out into the marketplace to go look for a battery case that doesn't exist in the U.S. market, let alone in 12 different colors is daunting. But going to Alibaba, plugging it in and finding that it's there is irresistible," he said in a phone interview Tuesday morning.
Knowing that it could be half-off, he planned to go back and get the case later in the day.
Chinese companies are not good at marketing in the U.S. yet, Fishman said.
"One thing it [Alibaba] does is that it enables what people have been talking about for a long time, which is the trend of mass customization. You can really drill down to whatever you want and get it wherever you live in the world."
Siva Yam, president of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce based in Chicago, said he got a lot of inquiries Tuesday asking about the new agreement to cut high-tech tariffs that President Obama and China's President Xi Jinping reached at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. But not much inquiry was about the big sales event.
The reason for Alibaba's low-profile approach in the U.S., Yam said, is that Alibaba has monopolized China's e-commerce market but it would be difficult for it to compete with established companies outside the country.
A Reuters report was used in this story..