What It’s Like to Shop Singles Day in China

Ever since I’ve moved back to China, Singles Day — or Double 11 — has been a part of my yearly shopping routine. And this year was no exception. Once again I was among the millions who participated in the global shopping gala, from buying presale items to even staying up until midnight to be the first to snap up a coveted scarf in short supply (yes, I got it!).

Since I’ve participated year after year on Alibaba’s Tmall platform, it has given me a unique perspective on what has become the world’s largest shopping event (generating more sales than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined). So I’d like to share a few takeaways from my experience, and also some tips for anyone who wants to dig into this event:

Sales can start well before Nov 11

While all the news stories buzz about what goes on for Nov 11, the truth of the matter is, serious Singles Day shoppers like me have their eyes on potential merchandise weeks before that date. That’s because presales for Singles Day come out around three weeks ahead of Nov 11.

Presales allow you to put a small deposit on an item you want, and on Nov 11, you simply need to pay the remaining amount. Also, the initial deposit you make can often serve as a kind of “discount” — say, you put down 10 RMB as a deposit, but when you pay the remainder the system subtracts 20 RMB, not just 10 RMB, from the price.

I love presales because they eliminate the biggest pressure from Singles Day — not getting what you want. And believe me, I’ve been there, still recalling those sweaters or jackets that got away from me because I wasn’t decisive enough or quick enough or the owner of a super-fast mobile phone. A presale order guarantees you get what you want. But still…

Midnight is the biggest moment for Singles Day

Participating in the Singles Day shopping extravaganza will likely mean staying up until the clock strikes 12, especially if you’re angling for a hot item from a very popular store or brand in China. Even though I did mostly presales this year, I still had to order a few things at midnight. Especially that best-selling Esprit scarf with the heart motif and only four remaining in stock. I managed to nab that scarf by swiftly ordering and paying in the first few seconds of Singles Day — and heaved a sigh of relief not long afterward. (After all, when I woke up later that morning and checked at the Esprit store, sure enough it had sold out of the scarf.)

Fortunately I had Nov 11 off, so I didn’t have to suffer my way to work early that morning with a Singles Day-induced headache from lack of sleep. But chances are, most young people who shopped did. I only hope it was worth it for them!

Getting your full discount involves planning

During this year’s event, Alibaba’s Tmall advertised giving shoppers a discount of 50 RMB for every 400 RMB you spend overall, on top of the discounts and coupons you get from individual stores. But to get that discount, you’ve got to collect enough discount vouchers to cover your purchases. In other words, if you think you’ll probably end up splurging 2,000 RMB on Singles Day, you need to make sure you have at least 200 RMB in discount vouchers.

There’s also a certain period of time when discount vouchers are available, and a certain place to get them every day. Plus, when you go each do to retrieve your discount vouchers, the system only releases a certain value — and you don’t get to decide how much you receive each time! For example, one day I landed 150 RMB, another 70 RMB, and still another just 50 RMB. It feels like pulling the lever on a slot machine at the casino (and interestingly, the digital “machine” rendered on the screen of my mobile phone that generates them looks almost like a slot machine at a casino).

As frustrating as it is, if you want to shop with platforms like Alibaba’s Tmall, you have to know the rules and plan your shopping out in advance. “Don’t forget to collect your discount vouchers” becomes a daily mantra for me in the lead-up to Singles Day!

Do the math on discounts well before ordering

Unlike Cyber Monday or Black Friday sales, which usually involve a straightforward discount of something like 50% off, Singles Day revolves around a lot of these store coupons and discount vouchers. And with presales, you also need to clearly understand how much of a discount you get for every deposit.

That means you really need to add up those numbers and have a relatively clear idea of what your final price should be.

This is even more critical if you’re planning to place your order exactly at midnight — speed is of the essence, and hesitating a few too many seconds because the final price appears wrong could result in you losing the merchandise you hoped to score that night.

Even this year, I had thought I did my calculations correctly and the price still turned out less than I had expected. Fortunately, I did the majority of my shopping during the day and not at midnight, so I didn’t feel any pressure to wait a few extra seconds and get it right.

Singles Day isn’t the only party for great deals

As China continues to experience an upgrade in its consumption, more sales holidays and events have emerged, beyond just Singles Day, to capture the fancy of buyers. There’s also 12:12 (on Dec 12), and the Chinese New Year Goods Festival (usually three weeks before Chinese New year) and even a host of more possibilities appearing each year. For example, in early September when I needed to update my wardrobe, I discovered Back-to-Campus sales that I’d never seen before (and the prices were actually on par with what I’ve seen for Singles Day).

What all that means is, if you missed out on Singles Day, you’ll still have plenty of chances to save big on all the things you love throughout the year.

What do you think about Singles Day? Have you ever participated in this holiday?

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Jocelyn Eikenburg

Writer & blogger at Speaking of China
Jocelyn is a writer, blogger and the creator of Speaking of China, a blog about love, family and relationships in China, including AMWF love. She has been featured on the BBC and CCTV. You can find her writing in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, the anthologies "How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?" and "Unsavory Elements", and other publications.
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2 comments

  1. I’ve been participating in “singles day” the past 3 years. Aliexpress just started charging tax but things are still significantly cheaper vs bestbuy/walmart. Tbh I don’t think I’ve bought a single electronic from the US in the past 3 years. To my friends I’m literally a walking unpaid advertisement for Aliexpress screaming at them to use it because they are overpaying for everything. Only downsides are the month long shipping time and that an American size M is a Chinese size XXL. It sucks unboxing kid/girl sized clothes.

    I never knew there was a 12.12 sale, thanks for the heads up

    1. Haha, that’s awesome you’re all in for Singles Day like that! I am familiar with Aliexpress — how cool you’ve relied on it for your electronics in recent years.

      Yes, I would keep a heads-up for 12.12 — very likely stores will also give discounts for 12.12.

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