Single-minded pursuit of retail therapy

BEIJING - In just 13 hours, Chinese shoppers grabbed online bargains worth more than twice the entire economy of Central American nation Belize - or a staggering 19 billion yuan (S$3.8 billion).

The figure was set on Monday - Nov 11 - which is also known as Singles Day in China.

This Chinese twist on Valentine's Day, created by online retailers to persuade the loveless to console themselves with retail therapy, has evolved into the biggest 24-hour period for online shopping in the country, with retailers slashing prices and shoppers clicking the mouse frenziedly.

Ms Zhang Jingnan, 24, was one of many who stayed glued to their computer screens as midnight on Sunday approached.

She had been saving for months as well as filling her shopping cart weeks before, in anticipation of the heavily-discounted prices promised by retailers.

But the flood of online shoppers brought the marketplace to a standstill, even in the wee hours.

"Many of my purchases could not go through at night so I woke up at 7am to try again. But some items I wanted like clothes and shoes were already sold out by then," she told The Straits Times.

Her eventual loot: an oven, a water purifier, a treadmill and three packs of face masks. The total cost was about 5,000 yuan, almost half her monthly salary. They would have cost over 6,000 yuan at the regular prices.

On Singles Day last year, Chinese shoppers spent more than 24 billion yuan - a record.

Average daily online sales last year came to 52 million yuan.

Sales on Singles Day this year are set to far exceed last year's, with steep discounts offered on everything from down jackets to BMWs. Buyers do not actually have to be single to buy.

In the first six hours, shoppers had bought 10 billion yuan worth of goods from Alibaba, China's largest e-commerce retailer.

The International Finance News estimates that this year's total could be somewhere between 50 billion and 80 billion yuan. To stand out, online retailers are coming up with creative ideas.

A Chinese group-buying website, for instance, has launched a lottery programme where male winners will receive a free trip to Vietnam to find a wife.

Not that the Chinese need any encouragement to spend online.

Online sales made up 6.3 per cent of total retail sales last year, up from 4.3 per cent a year earlier, according to Bloomberg.

China also has the world's biggest online population and its annual online sales are forecast to reach between US$420 billion and US$650 billion (between S$523 billion and S$809 billion) by 2020, making it the world's largest online retail market, consulting firm McKinsey estimates.

Online marketplace Taobao, for instance, has six million registered sellers, generating hundreds of millions of product listings.

Mr Fang Xingdong, chief of Internet business consultancy Chinalabs, told The Straits Times that the "very good marketing tactics" of online retailers, such as steep discounts of up to 50 per cent, were key to the day's success.

"Companies are realising from the strong sales on Singles Day that they need a strong online presence. It's transforming entirely the way firms do business."

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