From booby prize to phenomenal rise: China's Singles' Day and what it means for western brands

In my family we used to get 'unbirthday' presents. For a small child, this was a balm to take the edge off the unpalatable fact that it wasn’t your own birthday and a sibling was having all the fun. An unbirthday present didn’t have the size or status of a Raleigh Chopper or a Space Hopper, but as a gesture it did a job to console small children and helped to bring moody brothers and sisters into the spirit of celebration.

China’s Singles' Day has the air of the booby prize too – at least in its origins. In the 1990s, male university students in Nanjing started celebrating their bachelorhood with gift-giving to their single male friends and karaoke parties. This gradually evolved into Guanggun Jie (literally translated as 'bare sticks holiday'), was adopted by both sexes and spawned a variety of new customs. The date, 11 November, was chosen as the day of four 'ones'; single doughsticks are eaten and blind date parties are held.

In recent years, the event has been anything other than a booby prize to China’s retailers. As online shopping has boomed, so has Singles' Day. The figures are staggering. In 2011, Alipay processed $100m dollars’ worth of orders. Last year the checkouts of Alibaba’s TMall and Taobao rang up over $5.7bn – three times the value of Cyber Monday in the US. And with Chinese e-commerce forecast by KPMG to take over the US by 2020 in terms of value, Singles' Day looks set to be a permanent fixture in the e-commerce calendar and western brands are understandably keen to cash in.

So, there are two questions that marketers here in the UK have to consider: firstly, how do I get a piece of the pie, and secondly, will Singles' Day happen over here?

In answer to the first question, getting tucked into this commercial feast is not that easy. The first problems are operational. Although Chinese customers love western brands, they also trust Chinese retailers. New retailers have to wade through metres of government red tape. Add in to this the vast challenge of being able to rank in the pre-eminent Chinese search engine Baidu, and your best bet might be to launch a concession via a Chinese third party. Topshop has recently done this with Shangpin.

The second problem is cultural. Although brands are global, shopping patterns, behaviours and preference are local. So in apparel retail, western brands favour lookbooks, glossy photography straight out of high-end fashion magazines and oblique selling techniques. Chinese consumers don’t value this as much, preferring more text content and explicit routes to purchase.

Chinese script presents an obstacle too. Even in simplified Chinese there are some 3,000 Chinese characters compared to 26 letters in the English alphabet. Each of these characters can have up to 44 individual brushstrokes – which means that when transliterating, content designers have to deploy a much larger font size. Add in the understandable reluctance of Chinese users to use their keyboard to search, and pretty soon you are looking at a costly whole site redesign with text heavy pages.

Another classic mistake for western brands is to make the lazy assumption that Chinese users are utilising the same technology as we are in the west. They’re not. On the desktop, Chrome has only just overtaken Internet Explorer 6 in terms of browser market share. IE6 – officially declared dead in 2012 and unsupported – still accounts for over 25 per cent of share. So if your shiny new website won’t work in a defunct browser, you can’t sell to a quarter of Chinese shoppers.

Plus of course, mobile is driving most of the growth. The China Internet Network Information Center has logged a figure of 83 per cent of internet users accessing the web via a phone or tablet. In the year to June mobile payments also increased by 63 per cent. So you’ll probably need both a downscaled PC website AND a mobile site for the immediate future. A one-size-fits-all responsive site probably can’t cater for these two disparate technological groups.

But is there another opportunity? Will Singles' Day take off over here? I’m not sure, for three reasons:

1. It clashes with Armistice Day

In western Europe, 11 November has very sombre and respectful connotations. Transposing something that could be seen as frivolous as internet shopping onto this date might be jarring to many consumers. If one looks at the enormously popular reception to the poppy tribute in London, it seems unlikely that the two could co-exist.

2. The UK and western Europe has a different demography to China

In China, there is a substantial gap in numbers of men and women (variously calculated at between 109 to 130 men for every 100 women) naturally causing a surplus of single males. Creating something for this group to celebrate works in this environment. Also, in a highly collectivised society like China where most festivals are group based, this is a 'safe' expression of individuality.

3. In the UK, women may buy into singles' day, men may not

There is still a general masculine hangover from not wanting to talk about relationships or feelings. This is not universally true, but as a rule of thumb large numbers of British men wouldn’t be able to bond over a concept like singleness. In a group environment, men are more likely to celebrate the male bonding group ('going out with the lads') than acknowledge the lack of female relationships.

So in summary, the opportunity is vast, but western retailers are at risk of finding themselves in the rare position of looking on forlornly whilst everyone else has the fun. However, if retailers are prepared to properly research the cultural differences and technological challenges, to leverage local third party selling opportunities and loosen up their brand assets, then they will have every opportunity of cashing in. And don’t forget about Cyber Monday. This post-Thanksgiving manifestation of unbridled commercialism offers an easier route to market, and has much more likelihood of taking off in Europe as a curtain raiser for the festive silly season. Happy Christmas.

Joe Doveton is director of conversion services at Oban Digital

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