Forget Cyber Monday. China's Singles Day Is Arbitrary Consumerism Done Right

For once, China’s demand for cashmere sweaters and other consumer goods has upstaged its need for coal and backhoes.

Chinese shoppers are expected to spend roughly $5 billion online by the end of Monday, spurred by a tide of sales synced with Singles Day, a semi-official celebration of not having a girlfriend, boyfriend, or life partner of some kind. To translate the sheer scope of the Chinese consumer holiday into American terms, this is expected to mark the second straight year that Singles Day sales roughly double the amount of e-commerce U.S. retailers collect on Cyber Monday.

This time around, however, Western retailers are paying attention. Gap, Microsoft, Steve Madden, and Adidas all organized sales campaigns around the holiday, held each year on Nov. 11. (or 11/11, you see, for singles). Some Chinese bachelors and bachelorettes use the deals to woo other lonely hearts with gifts, but much of the shopping is entirely selfish.

It’s not uncommon for a savvy team of corporate marketers to quietly co-opt a holiday of sorts. The blitz of Corona ads every spring belie the fact that Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico. And every President’s Day, U.S. carmakers act as if every commander in chief in the nation’s history had been born on a Detroit assembly line. Buy a Lincoln to, you know, honor Lincoln.

The muscular Singles Day strategy came from Alibaba Group, China’s equivalent of, and it has proven a savvy move. For one, would-be shoppers aren’t likely to be offended on sectarian grounds: Singles Day has no religious or even historic precedent. It was just cooked up in the early 1990s by some students who were frustrated by cultural pressure to couple up and settle down; the name translates literally as “bare sticks holiday.” In fact, Chinese consumers—already feeling a little rebellious—are possibly primed to buck against their own cautious budgeting. What’s more, the day is smack in the middle of a traditionally slow period for retail sales, between National Day on Oct. 1 and the Chinese New Year around February.

Cyber Monday, when bored office workers scour websites for holiday-shopping deals for no clear reason other than proximity to Black Friday, may pale in comparison with this celebration of singletons, but maybe Alibaba’s counterparts in the U.S. could learn from China and engineer a similarly arbitrary shopping tradition. The American calendar is rife with candidates. Groundhog Day (Feb. 2) could use a bit more of a raison d’être and is timed perfectly for busting tight post-holiday budgets. Wright Brothers Day (Dec. 17) seems like a natural fit for travel companies. Don’t forget Arbor Day in April, the best time of the year to plant a tree. And what about National Grandparents Day (Sept. 8)? Grandparents love shopping, right? Does it even matter?