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Singles Day is a huge hit in China but no home run here

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Imagine an online shopping day that was more than four times the size of Cyber Monday in 2015. A shopping day when $20 billion worth of household goods, apparel and electronic gadgets, among other things, are forecast to be sold this year.

It’s called Singles Day, and it’ll be celebrated -- mostly in China -- on Nov. 11. Singles Day began as a joke among Chinese college students in the 1990s, but it  has since become serious business, even outstripping America’s Black Friday, which racked up about $10 billion in physical store sales last year.

The reasons for the holiday’s surging popularity are many, including a huge promotional push from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba (BABA) under CEO Jack Ma. For one thing, it speaks to the pressure in China for people to get married and to the aspirations of the country’s growing middle class.

“There are so many singles in China,” said Scott Kennedy, director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is a perfect match between supply and demand.”

“Singles Day” in China launched in 2009, ... 05:18

Why is Singles Day celebrated on Nov. 11? The holiday’s organizers chose the date 11/11 as an ode to loneliness because it contained four ones.

However, that date coincides with Veteran’s Day in the U.S., a somber time when people remember those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The holiday also has struggled to overcome the social stigma of being single in a U.S. culture that celebrates couplehood as well a general lack of awareness of Singles Day.

“Singles historically are not very proud,” said Karen Reed, a California entrepreneur who has tried to generate interest in Singles Day in the U.S. over the past three years. She added that single people around the world “really want a holiday that changes what it means to be single and celebrates singlehood, kind of like a Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”

U.S. shoppers spent about $1.4 billion on Singles Day last year. While that marked a 14 percent year-over-year gain, it’s small potatoes for retail chains compared with other holidays such as Valentine’s Day, for which consumers spent about $20 billion in 2015. 

Most U.S. retailers have ignored the holiday but not all. (OSTK), for one, has offered Singles Day deals in the past. However, a spokesman declined to say if the Utah-based e-commerce company was planning to offer them this year., an English-language site targeting Chinese-American consumers, will offer more than 250 exclusive Singles Day offers, most of which are luxury goods. That’s an increase from about 150 a year ago.

“It’s possible Singles Day will gain some traction in the U.S., but it will remain niche -- at least for the near future,” wrote Forrester analyst Lily Varon in an email. She said Alibaba might break through if it can generate more U.S. sales from its English-language site AliExpress. 

“Online retailers in the U.S. may be compelled to participate in one way or another,” Varon wrote, “as Chinese consumers’ cross-border shopping activity ticks up and [U.S. retailers] get more and more traffic to their U.S. websites from consumers in China.”

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