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A shopaholic’s guide to surviving Singles’ Day, China’s online shopping bonanza

Screenshot of
Buy, buy, buy!
By Zheping Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The world’s largest online shopping holiday, Singles’ Day, kicked off at midnight on Nov. 11 in China. In eight years, e-commerce giant Alibaba has transformed China’s answer to Valentines’ Day from a small university event to what is likely to be a $20 billion sales bonanza this year.

Courtesy of Yu Yayun
Chinese shopper Yu Yayun.

The 24-hour shopping marathon is a test of Chinese consumers’ buying power so huge that it pressures the world’s supply of consumer goods, as more and more foreign brands join the event and offer steep discounts. China’s consumers use the day to indulge themselves, show off their spending power by sharing their purchases on social media, and to enjoy being part of a popular social phenomenon. Retailers feed the competitive frenzy, by offering limited quantities of some products at super low prices, and Alibaba boosts it even more by doling out easy credit.

Quartz asked Yu Yayun, a 21-year-old college student in Shanghai (who previously helped educate Westerners on how to not get ripped off buying clothes online from China), to share the details of her feverish Singles’ Day shopping experience.


A few days before:  A friend of mine promised me that she was not going to buy anything on Singles’ Day. But this morning she posted a picture of her shopping list—with a GoPro 4 camera and an air purifier—on her WeChat Moments feed. Impulsive shopping is always too easy for girls like me. The real question is how to buy yourself the most benefit and happiness with a limited budget.

Last year I was less cautious. I had my eyes on two Zara outfits and prepared to click the payment button right at midnight (when Singles’ Day starts). But the stock was emptied as quickly as lightning. I was so pissed off that I spent 900 yuan ($132) for several deep-discounted unbranded items of clothing, which I barely wear now. I was too naive.

This year, I want to make every single purchase wisely. I’ve read tons of “hand-chopping guides” on Wechat:

Screenshot from Wechat
The “Hand-chopping” meme describes the urge to cut one’s hands off to stop impulsive buying.

… and started to list out all the things I need two weeks ago:

Quartz/Yu Yayun
Electric toothbrush x; sanitary pads ✓.

But there are more than 40 items on the list, making it probably too expensive. I asked my friend to help me eliminate some items, but she only added more stuff to her shopping list after checking mine. I give up. Let’s see when the day comes.


6.30pm on Nov. 10: My boyfriend weighed in. Because I always shop without restraint, he is in charge of our money. He asked how much I was going to spend later. Seriously, I couldn’t give him an answer. We decided to cap the expense at under 2,000 yuan (just under $300).

10.15pm: The “family meeting” began. Our conversations were like this:

—Don’t buy the steam iron.
—Why?! (I was hysterical.)
—The iron you bought last year is still unopened.
—Let’s delete Moroccan hair oil.
—Give me a reason!
—Isn’t it the same as the hair cream you want to buy?
—Delete the juicer please.
—Do you want to deprive me of my right to get Vitamin E and then become pretty?
—How many times have you used the lemon squeezer you bought over the summer?
(We repeated dialogue like this like 40 times.)

11pm: Finally, we cut the items in my shopping cart to a total of 2,300 yuan worth—mostly clothes, cosmetics, skincare, and daily necessities.

11.45pm: I was fully ready. I was so bored that I began to check my WeChat messages. Everyone was praying for a stable internet connection.

11.58pm: Now I was nervous. I promised my mom that I’d buy her toothpaste, napkins, shampoo, and a pair of sporting trousers, because she had funded my cosmetics. I decided to pay for those things first.

 11.59pm: WTH? The sporting trousers just disappeared? Isn’t it not midnight yet? Did people just rush to buy at a higher price?

Screenshot from Taobao
Are the 146-yuan sporting trousers too good a deal?

Midnight: It’s time! I rushed to buy my mom’s toothpaste, napkins and shampoo. Everything was going smoothly… until my phone froze at this interface:

Screenshot from Taobao
“Failed to download the data.”

I refreshed like twenty times but it still didn’t work. I haven’t bought my own stuff!

00.05am: Finally, I was back in the battle. I decided to buy Sephora’s products first and made multiple orders so that I can enjoy better discounts.  As I was picking up a 15-yuan facial mask to reach the “299 minus 50” discount, the Peter Thomas Roth serum—the product I wanted to buy the most—sold out. It felt just like getting dumped. Oh my love, how can you leave me like this?

Screenshot from Taobao
Farewell, my Peter Thomas Roth.

00.15am: I pulled myself together. Because I wasted too much time on Sephora products, many items in my shopping cart had sold out. I didn’t bother to make several orders to meet the discount criteria anymore. I clicked the payment button once and for all.

In total, I spent 3,000 yuan (my mum contributed 1,600 yuan of it). I saved 2,150 yuan with discounts.


Here’s some tips that I’ll save for next year:

  1. Don’t use your phone. Use your computer. Alibaba’s shopping site Taobao is more stable on web than on mobile app.
  2. Check out physical stores. They need to compete with online stores, and sometimes offer steeper discounts. For example, I bought a Mo&Co down coat for 1,200 yuan a week earlier—and it was priced at 1,600 yuan online on Singles’ Day.
  3. Talk your parents into this. I assured my mom that flagship stores online won’t sell fakes, so she was happy to join the event—and funded my Sisley skincare package.
  4. Find someone to talk you out of this. The shopping bonanza is more about indulging yourself than getting good deals. Find someone (like your boyfriend) to dissuade you before things get out of control. Be rational. Remember, you can’t own all the good stuff in the world.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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