Updated Monday, November 12, 2012 at 08:47 AM
BEIJING — Lei Shujie, a designer in Shanghai, piled up a wish list for Sunday, a quirky holiday dubbed "Singles Day" that has grown into China's — and possibly the world's — busiest online shopping day.
Clothes, a pillow, a cabinet to give a friend — Lei put off buying until Sunday, when retailers promised discounts of up to 70 percent. "The prices are irresistible," she said.
Singles Day was begun by Chinese college students in the 1990s as a version of Valentine's Day for people without romantic partners. The timing was based on the date Nov. 11, or "11.11" — four singles. Unattached young people would treat each other to dinner or give gifts to woo that special someone and end their single status.
That gift-giving helped to turn it into a major shopping event as sellers of everything from jewelry to TVs to cars saw a marketing opportunity and launched Singles Day sales. It is China's answer to Cyber Monday in the United States — the day after Thanksgiving weekend, when online Christmas shopping begins and merchants have their busiest sales day.
Companies that are rushing to cash in on the holiday range from Alibaba Group, operator of China's biggest e-commerce platforms, to rival platforms such as 360buy, mom-and-pop companies that sell online and delivery services.
In the first 13 hours of selling Sunday, the 50,000-plus merchants on Alibaba's consumer-oriented Tmall.com took in $1.6 billion, the company announced on its microblog account.
That would top the total of $1.25 billion that research firm comScore said U.S. online retailers took in last year on Cyber Monday and might make Singles Day the biggest e-commerce sales day on record.
"This is very, very big for us," said Steve Wang, vice president of Tmall.com and head of website operations. The company said on its website that Sunday might be the "biggest e-shopping orgy ever."
The spending binge will be welcome news for communist leaders who want to shift the basis of growth in the world's second-largest economy from trade and investment to consumer spending and service industries. Weak global demand for Chinese exports has added to the urgency of ramping up domestic consumption.
China has the world's biggest population of Internet users, with 538 million people online. Its population of online shoppers also is the biggest at 193 million, versus 170 million for the United States, according to Boston Consulting Group.
It trails the United States and Japan in online spending but, despite average incomes less than one-tenth the American level, is forecast to rise to first place as early as 2015.
The Communist Party's latest five-year development plan calls for more than quadrupling annual e-commerce volume from 2010 levels to $2.9 trillion by 2015. The party tries to block access to online material deemed subversive or pornographic but promotes Web use for business and education.
The source of Singles Day's rise as China's online shopping day is a matter of debate by Chinese commentators and industry analysts.
Some cite demographics and timing: University graduates who adopted the holiday earn more and shop online. Singles Day comes as people receive monthly paychecks and need to buy winter clothes. Unlike other events such as the Lunar New Year, China's biggest family holiday, it involves few other expenses such as travel or banquets, leaving more money for gifts.
And there is the romantic angle that might prompt shoppers to open their wallets.
"This is about giving a gift that will woo that perfect someone," Natkin said. "If you play your cards right, you only need to make that purchase once."
EUGENE HOSHIKO / AP
Single people introduce themselves during a matchmaking party organized by one of the biggest Chinese matchmaking websites in Shanghai on Sunday. Singles Day was based on the date Nov. 11, or "11.11" — four singles.