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Tchotchkes, sex dolls, and fashion. What did you buy on Singles’ Day?

Singles’ Day, a festival to celebrate being single, is a brilliant idea. In my mind, it’s the day when—if you’re single—you should buy yourself a present, maybe take a day in nature, or at a spa or museum. The internet should fill with memes about the best parts of being single, and bars and restaurants should have huge discounts for single people—think: single-serve pizzas, tiny tubs of individually portioned ice cream. Imagine the possibilities. After all, 45 percent of Americans over 18 are single; that’s a lot of people who might want a reason to celebrate their individuality and fortitude.

Singles’ Day originated in China. According to legend, it started at a university in the 1990s as a form of protest against Valentine’s Day. The founders marked November 11 as the official day because the numbers (11/11) represent “bare sticks”—a colloquialism for single people. But in 2009, e-commerce company Alibaba, China’s version of Amazon, got hold of it and turned it into an ecommerce shopping extravaganza that dwarfs Black Friday This year’s expected Singles’ Day revenues? $20 billion.

Couples shouldn’t benefit from Singles’ Day

I have a lot of issues around this. I guess the first—and I acknowledge this is petty—is that couples have Valentine’s Day. Sure, other people say Valentine’s Day is for anyone you love, but we all know the score. So, in my mind, Singles’ Day should be a day couples dread because they’re not single, just like single people dread Valentine’s Day. They should be required to spend the day unwittingly tallying the things they don’t get to do because they’re a couple—the rules they have to follow, the holidays they have to spend with weird relatives, the arguments that will not die no matter how often you hash through them. They should pine for the opportunity to stick the spoon back in the peanut butter jar because no one else will be eating out of it. Then, on November 12, they can go back to being happy couples.

They should be required to spend the day unwittingly tallying the things they don’t get to do because they’re a couple—the rules they have to follow, the holidays they have to spend with weird relatives, the arguments that will not die no matter how often you hash through them.

Just give singles one day to feel a tiny bit superior.

The problem is that if Singles’ Day is just about snagging bargains, anybody can benefit. I read an article by a woman planning her Singles’ Day shopping who brazenly noted that her boyfriend weighed in on her spending. No! Couples can tap into the Singles’ Day after-sales, just like the rest of us pound down self-purchased Valentine’s Day-aftermarket-reject-chocolate on deep discount.

Some people have tried to rebrand Singles’ Day as the day to celebrate finding The One. One year, Singles’ Day saw a surge in marriages. But seriously lovebirds, do you need all the holidays?

What’s selling on Singles’ Day?

Essentially, the whole concept of Singles’ Day seems to be lost in China. Travel & Leisure posted a list of Singles’ Day items in 2016 that included Santa suits for your silverware, fake diamond rings for 50 cents each (with a minimum purchase of 20), American flags, and “genuine virgin Brazilian hair.” Not sure how they certified that. In 2017, in anticipation of Singles’ Day, Alibaba was selling a ring box with the ad copy (clearly written by someone for whom English is not the first language): Ring packing box, this singles day you are no longer a person...

Speaking of no longer a person, sex dolls have seen a surge as a Singles’ Day purchase, which is at least holiday-appropriate. The dolls, often very life-like, come in various shapes, sizes, and facial features, all made of silicon with removable, washable parts. According to Startup Living China, one sex doll manufacturer claimed to have sold 1,500 units on Singles’ Day 2016—roughly one a minute. Of course, the dolls are all women; the one-child policy left China with a gender imbalance and surplus of 30 million men.

Alibaba also doesn’t seem interested in the integrity of the Singles’ Day concept, not when they’re making money hand-over-fist. The company started out with Chinese retailers Taobao and Tmall, but brands from all over the world have jumped in for a piece of the action and are now selling through these outlets. DigiDay reported that more than 14,000 foreign merchants participated via Tmall and Taobao in 2016 and other companies, like Guerlain, Maserati, Target, Costco, Macy’s, Starbucks, Zara, Shanghai Disneyland, Burberry, Sephora, and Victoria’s Secret also offer Singles’ Day bargains. The biggest brands sold in 2015 were Uniqlo, Nike, Adidas, and New Balance.

Increasingly, Singles’ Day in China is less about deep discounts and more about a global exchange, where other country’s retailers sell things to China and Chinese companies sell things to the world—backed by marketing opportunities and gimmicks. After November 11 2016, DigiDay reported: “A week before Singles’ Day, Alibaba live-streamed an eight-hour fashion show in Shanghai with 80 international brands. During the show, viewers could pre-order the designs from luxury fashion houses like Burberry that they saw on the catwalk. The company also developed a Pokémon Go-like mobile game where players could catch different branded ‘Tmall Cat’ mascots and then redeem them for prizes and discounts.”

Increasingly, Singles’ Day in China is less about deep discounts and more about a global exchange, where other country’s retailers sell things to China and Chinese companies sell things to the world—backed by marketing opportunities and gimmicks.

This came at the same time China banned the import of used paper products, meaning that packaging for the estimated one billion units to be shipped was in short supply. Nikkei Asian Review reported that the price of cardboard containers jumped by 70 percent in advance of Singles’ Day 2017.

Should single Americans get on board?

So why doesn’t the U.S. celebrate Singles’ Day? Well, first of all, November 11 is Veterans’ Day and many people would be plenty ticked at having it usurped by singles. Also, Singles’ Day impinges on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and retailers don’t want to drain resources before two of the biggest shopping days of the year.

Going back to the original concept, some have tried to create a different, less commercial version of Singles’ Day. A group in Ohio declared the week of September 18-24 Singles’ Week. But it hasn’t really caught on, certainly not as much as the anti-Valentine’s movement.

Through a positive lens, Singles’ Day would be a great way to What if singles were rewarded for eating out on their own, or got half-price drinks while the couples paid full price? What if dating websites offered some freebies or hosted a singles meetup? There are plenty of marketing opportunities here, but it doesn’t have to be all about consumerism—even if the singles among us might want to pick up that piece of jewelry or new camera, or heck, maybe even some genuine Brazilian hair.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.