How Singles Day 2016 hit one sorting center in Lianyungang. PHOTO: STR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

BEIJING—Created as a gimmick by online retailer Alibaba a decade ago, “Singles Day” has entrenched itself on the Chinese calendar as a hybrid of Black Friday and Super Bowl Sunday—a colossal opportunity for both shops and shoppers.

This year’s Nov. 11 festival of consumption is expected to be bigger than ever—and so are the headaches that come with it.

Retailers fighting to be heard above the din have blanketed billboards and social-media sites to promote the likes of half-price sneakers and discounted jewelry. Government regulators, fearing what an advertiser might do to stand out, have issued extra warnings against misleading or vulgar ads.

For hundreds of millions of shoppers, it is a big enough challenge just to keep track of the sales.

Chasing coupons for products from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. BABA 0.27% and rival Inc., Peng Yang joined 11 different groups on the WeChat messaging app. The more WeChat friends she persuades to join her, the more coupons she gets.

“I feel so addicted,” said the 25-year-old human-resources consultant in Shenzhen, who estimates she has dragged in dozens of people.

“Some of them must find me very annoying,” she said.One Single DayFor Alibaba, each ‘Singles Day’ has beenbigger than the last.Gross merchandise value on Nov. 11Source: the companyNote: Figures converted from yuan at Friday’s rate..billion0.130.00720092010’11’12’13’14’15’16’17’18051015202530$35

Shoppers should be “thick-skinned” in trying to corral friends with invitations, JD e-commerce partner Fenxiang advised via its WeChat program. It also recommends dealing with complaints in private instead of in group chats, to avoid losing members.

Singles Day was dreamed up in 2009 by Alibaba Chief Executive Daniel Zhang, who recently also took on the role of executive chairman after co-founder Jack Ma retired. It was intended as a sort of anti-Valentine’s Day—an occasion for bachelors and bachelorettes to splurge on themselves. The date was chosen because it is written with four ones.

The promotion contributed to making Alibaba China’s most valuable company, with roughly two-thirds of the country’s e-commerce market. Its Singles Day sales last year hit $30.8 billion, up 27% from 2017 and more than U.S. retailers sold online on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. This year Alibaba aims to raise up to $15 billion in a secondary listing in Hong Kong soon after Singles Day, according to people familiar with the matter.

Other retailers don’t want to be left out of Singles Day mania. “If you’re a brand with any ambition, you have to participate,” said Declan Kearney, Asia managing director for Edge by Ascential, an e-commerce data and analytics company that helps major brands on Singles Day.

While some retailers slash prices by 50% or more, Mr. Kearney recommends that well-known companies limit discounts to 15% to 20%. “If you’re a brand like Nike, you are compelled to offer a discount, but the key is not to get in a price war and not devalue your premium image,” he said.

China’s Singles Day Sets Shopping Record, Again

E-commerce behemoth Alibaba clocks in sales of $30.8 billion in the 24-hour span beginning at 12 a.m. Sunday

A variety of shopping faces on display in a small Singles Day parade Sunday beside a Tmall promotion in Beijing’s Sanlitun area, a retail hot spot.

As the clock hit 24:00:00, e-commerce behemoth Alibaba counted record sales of $30.8 billion—or, as the board puts it, 213.5 billion yuan—for its 24-hour Singles Day celebration of shopping, good enough to inspire a display of corporate delight by an Alibaba staff member.

Before the hard sell, there was a little glitz, with Mariah Carey performing for a live and television audience.

Also providing presale star power: Australian model Miranda Kerr, who made the news last year for handing over to the U.S. Justice Department $8.1 million worth of jewelry she had been given by Malaysian financier Jho Low, of 1MDB fame.

The aftermath: A woman picking up a package from a courier outside a Beijing office building Monday. Singles Day, originally conceived as a holiday for China’s young people to celebrate their solitary state, takes its name in Chinese—‘Single Sticks Holiday’—from its date: Nov. 11, or 11/11. In 2009 Alibaba turned it into an online shopping event.

The number writ large, captured by phone-wielding celebrants. As usual, sales for the latest Singles Day spree shattered the record set the previous year: Last year’s total of 168.2 billion yuan, or $25.3 billion, was surpassed this year by about 5:30 p.m. Sunday, leaving more than six hours to pile on.

An attendee using a Magic Mirror interactive screen to get in a little shopping in Shanghai on Sunday. The cat is a mascot for Tmall, an online shopping website owned by Alibaba.

An RT Hypermarket—one of Alibaba’s bricks-and-mortar bets—in Shanghai on Sunday. For the first time, Alibaba introduced Singles Day promotions to RT, its supermarket chain Hema, its food-delivery service and its Yelp-like online platform Koubei. Another first: Alibaba’s Singapore-based Lazada Group are rolled out Singles Day sales in six Southeast Asian countries.

In the Beijing command center of Alibaba rival, a display Sunday showed sales data for imported products.

Workers sealing sacks of packages in a sorting facility in suburban Beijing on Sunday.

Alibaba co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma, here with iPhone in hand, was less of a presence than usual. Ahead of his planned retirement next year, he didn’t make his accustomed star turn on stage, instead appearing in a video showing him competing against Alibaba employees at tasks including delivering meals, taping packages and tying up crabs.

  As the clock hit 24:00:00, e-commerce behemoth Alibaba counted record sales of $30.8 billion—or, as the board puts it, 213.5 billion yuan—for its 24-hour Singles Day celebration of shopping, good enough to inspire a display of corporate delight by an Alibaba staff member.NG HAN GUAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS1 of 11

It isn’t only retailers that seek the Singles Day spotlight. A chicken farm in Jiangsu province aims to supply a million eggs for Alibaba on Nov. 11, a local newspaper reported. Real-estate company Evergrande says it is slashing commissions for homes sold that day.

Regulators are jumping in, too. The State Administration for Market Regulation met dozens of e-commerce businesses in Alibaba’s home city of Hangzhou over concerns about the frenzied competition during the period, warning against “improper eyeball-catching promotion and illegal practices.”

The National Radio and Television Administration asked local regulators to closely monitor ads, as well as online infomercials. These have become a popular way to promote products. One 27-year-old man became an internet celebrity when he tested hundreds of lipstick shades during one live show; it won him a nickname: “Iron Lips.”

While Alibaba is expected to sell even more on Nov. 11 than it did last year, the one-day results have their limits as an economic indicator. Singles Day sales actually begin weeks in advance, with Nov. 11 the climax.

Still, Alibaba’s tally for the day could provide a clue about the current tendencies of Chinese consumers. Online retailers focus on promoting discretionary products, such as cosmetics, rather than daily staples.

“If the growth rate is below 20%, it’ll be a huge surprise and could be a sign of deceleration,” said Steven Zhu, an analyst at Pacific Epoch. Over 25%, he said, would indicate positive momentum. “It’s more of a vote of confidence in the economy.”

—Raffaele Huang and Stu Woo


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