Author Mark Richards

Singles’ Day, the annual online shopping bonanza in China, has just smashed all records. In the West, next week will bring Black Friday, closely followed by Cyber Monday. Are these new trends in retail here to stay? And what do they say about the future shape of shopping?

We have just had Halloween – depending on your view an ancient festival marking the beginning of winter, or a crass American commercialisation that hard-pressed parents could well do without.

I am sorry, Mr Scrooge, but the hype and expense of Halloween is only going to increase – and we also need to thank the Land of the Free for two other special days that are going to play an increasingly important role in emptying our wallets: Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

A note on dates

Thanksgiving is the traditional American holiday, begun by the early settlers and celebrating the harvest and the blessings of the previous year. Nowadays it sees families getting together, eating far too much, watching the Dallas Cowboys play the Los Angeles Chargers and celebrating… well, being American.

It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November – so this year on November 23rd – and is immediately followed by Black Friday. Then, on November 27th this year we will have Cyber Monday.

Black Friday

We already have Black Monday – the day the world’s stock markets plunged – and Black Thursday, the day which marked the start of the Great Depression in 1929. But Black Friday is good news – at least for retailers. It is the Friday immediately after Thanksgiving: many Americans are on holiday and as the saying has it, ‘When the going gets tough the tough go shopping.’ Last year more than 100m Americans visited the shops, marking the start of the Christmas retail season, with 30% of the year’s total retail spend coming between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

…As Americans swarm to the shops, so retailers finally move into the black (profit) for the year: hence Black Friday. (Although there is some suggestion that the Philadelphia police department coined ‘Black Friday’ to mark the increased number of traffic accidents and the general mayhem as good-natured shoppers cheerfully punched each other to get the best bargains.)

However more Americans – the estimate is 10m – now shop online on Black Friday, with figures for last putting the estimated spend in excess of $7bn (around £5.3bn). You won’t be surprised to hear that the marketing hype quickly moved across the Atlantic and last year the UK spent £1.23bn online on Black Friday – this year estimates put the amount we will spend tapping away on our laptops and smartphones at up to £3bn.

Cyber Monday

Cyber Monday is the marketing term for the Monday after Thanksgiving – effectively marking four days of solid shopping. The term was coined in 2005 in an attempt to get people to embrace the relatively new idea of shopping online. Inevitably it has grown and grown, with Cyber Monday sales for 2015 totalling very nearly $3bn in the US, with an average order value of $128 (£97).

Despite the name, Cyber Monday sees more sales of clothing, kitchen appliances and small household items. The big electronic consumer products tend to be sold on Black Friday.

So Black Friday and Cyber Monday are big events – and they are unquestionably going to get bigger: ultimately they are bound to impact the face of retail and the traditional Christmas shopping period. They are, however, eclipsed by China’s Singles’ Day, held every year on November 11th.

So why is ‘Singles’ Day’ called ‘Singles’ Day?’

The whole bonanza began as an anti-Valentine’s Day celebration at the University of Nanjing in the 1990s. November 11th was chosen because of the four ones of the date – 11.11 – look like four singles, or ‘single sticks’ as they are known in China.

It was originally celebrated by young men and became mainstream in 2011 when the date consisted of six ones. Since then it has been adopted by Alibaba and other online companies as a buying bonanza: if you do not have a girlfriend, you can at least spend your evenings whispering sweet nothings to the Chinese equivalent of the Amazon Echo – the Tianmao Xingling X1.

The online tills are jingling…

Black Friday and Singles Day

China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba (roughly, China’s equivalent of Amazon) has said that its sales on Singles’ Day hit $25.4bn – equal to £19.2bn and smashing its record from last year, a pathetic £13.6bn.

Singles’ Day is the world’s biggest shopping event. According to Alibaba early shoppers drove sales past $1bn in two minutes and past $10bn in the first hour. Spare a thought for the nation’s delivery men, who are expected to deliver 1.5bn parcels over the next six days.

Singles’ Day is also seen as an indicator of overall consumer confidence in the Chinese economy: I think we can say that it is robust. “On Singles’ Day,” said Joseph Tsai, Alibaba co-founder and vice-chairman, “Shopping is a sport. It is entertainment.”

Could Singles’ Day catch on in the West?

You would have to think that is unlikely, given that the date – November 11th – is the same day as Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War.

But there will almost certainly be a move to bring the Christmas shopping bonanza forward. Chris Boaz, head of marketing at data analysts PCA Predict does expect more retailers to offer big discounts to drive sales ahead of the Christmas period.

This is already happening, with Amazon announcing that its ‘Black Friday sale’ will begin a week early on Friday 17th November, with special countdown deals. Traditional retailers will simply have to follow suit – or risk an ever-increasing proportion of consumer spends going online.

Could we also see empty shops in the run-up to Christmas? Probably not: there will always be people who leave their shopping to the last minute (said he, staring into the mirror) but an increasing number of consumers are recognising the value of events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Apparently, 8% of shoppers plan to do all their Christmas shopping on Black Friday. It looks like Rudolph may be getting hitched to the sleigh early this year…