Everything about China surprises me. The geographical scale of the country, the 1.3 billion people who live within its borders, and the fact that a notionally communist one-party state has created a vast and increasingly consumer-centric economy; the second largest in the world after the United States.
Singles’ Day is no exception. The annual shopping event has just taken place in China on November 11th. It has its origins in China’s one-child policy and the astounding fact that due to the well-documented pressures for parents to have a son there is a huge gender imbalance with roughly 24 million Chinese men of marrying age finding themselves single by 2020, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. To put this number into context – 24 million people is approaching half the population of the United Kingdom. In the early 1990s students from Nanjing University began to celebrate a day for those who were single, and when the Chinese internet giant Alibaba (China’s equivalent of Amazon) latched on, the momentum became unstoppable.
In the world of retail and eCommerce Singles’ Day is bigger than Black Friday. Yet what is interesting is that foreign brands are at the top of the sales charts: think Apple, Nike and Adidas. In fact, when it comes to China, Europe and the USA both hold an enviable position in terms of aspirational culture. It is illuminating that the Alibaba founder Jack Ma chose David and Victoria Beckham, who flew into a star-studded event in Shenzhen, to promote the 24-hour shopping event.
Home grown brands are obviously aware of this and the China opportunities are compelling. At Matter Of Form we have recently completed a Magento 2.0 eCommerce roll-out in the UK for the phenomenally successful British Hair Care company Tangle Teezer, one of Britain’s most high-profile export successes. In 2015 China became the company’s biggest market by revenue and profit, and on the Singles’ Day of that year it managed just under £1m of sales in the 24 period. We work across our client portfolio on eCommerce internationalisation strategies, and China is becoming a central pillar to many of them.
But I wonder how much China might start to influence our culture in years to come, and what is to say that the cultural phenomenon of Singles’ day won’t spread to Europe and the US? There are already signs that Black Friday in the US is slowing down with sales in 2015 down on the previous year – and we’ll see what happens this Friday. In the Luxury space there is even a mild revolt – handbag maker Oliver Cabell (who made a mark when they revealed to their customers how much a handbag actually costs) will this year shut its online shop on Thanksgiving weekend to encourage ‘intentional purchasing’. When you actually think of Singles’ Day on a human level it is actually quite heart-warming, alongside the obvious ratchet of materialistic excess it does at its heart focus on a demographic phenomenon of more single people and their happiness, which is increasingly relevant in the West. In this secular age, is this any less relevant than borrowing from religious festivals for consumerist purposes? I would argue not.
So as surprising as China is, one thing that wouldn’t surprise me is if in years to come much of our working day at Matter Of Form is spent navigating brand expansion in that country. But equally, we might start learning a thing or two from the Chinese.