BEIJING - Discounted fancy clothes, sparkling jewellery and high-end handbags failed to cheer up 22-year-old Fu Jie from Hainan province on Singles' Day yesterday, a Chinese holiday marked by an annual national shopping spree.
Like most lonely hearts, what the lovelorn young woman needed most on "Double 11 Day" was a lover.
And on Taobao, China's "you-name-it-we-have-it" online shopping giant, there were plenty of "lovers" in store.
A real-life version of the science-fiction film Her, which depicts a lonely man falling in love with his computer operating system, is happening in China as "virtual lover rental" businesses gain popularity on Chinese e-commerce websites.
Customers can rent a girlfriend or boyfriend for a few days to offer sweet words, lend a patient ear and other custom-made services, mostly through messaging platforms such as Tencent's QQ and WeChat.
"It's much safer to have a virtual boyfriend, and emotional care and support mean more to me than physical company at present," Miss Fu said.
It costs about 20 yuan (S$4.20) a day to rent a virtual lover from a range of people categorised according to their personalities and characteristics, such as cuteness, maturity, optimism and gentleness.
A virtual girlfriend, also called a "girlfriend in the cellphone", may call in the morning, chat online all day, listening to a customer's stories and secrets, offer comfort or encouragement, and say goodnight before bedtime. Conversations via mobile phone may require additional fees.
There are roughly 350 online stores with over 5,000 virtual girlfriends or boyfriends offering virtual lover services on Taobao. A popular online store, Touching You, has served over 4,000 lonely hearts since it started business in mid-August, serving 40 to 50 customers daily.
To qualify, virtual lovers should have a sweet voice, be an empathetic listener and talker, and sometimes a good singer, according to Xiaolu, owner of the store, which offers 40 virtual girlfriends and 40 boyfriends.
Her store rolled out a package service to mark Singles' Day and even offers English, French and Japanese language chatting services.
"I don't do it for money, just for fun. You can listen to different people's stories, and sometimes it also has healing effects on myself," said a virtual girlfriend nicknamed Namei.
Social networking and emotional support demands have surged in recent years with the rise of the middle class and Internet in China. Members of the Internet-savvy post-80s generation, most of whom grew up in one-child families, tend to seek understanding, encouragement and companionship from strangers online.
Companies have rushed to cash in on this generation's loneliness. In addition to virtual lover services, blind-dating apps such as Momo have gained wide popularity among young people. Momo, a Tinder-like app with more than 50 million active users, is reported to be preparing for an initial public offering in the United States.
However, the virtual lover business has raised concerns over online and offline pornography. Taobao started screening searches for virtual lovers last month, but the stores are still out there.
"The demand is there. People nowadays are facing multiple pressures from work, life and family, and it is an alternative to ease anxiety," said Yang Yin, a visiting psychological consultant with Renmin University of China.
But the consultant cautioned that overindulgence in virtual relationships may hamper real-life interpersonal relations.