Alibaba Says It Smashed Sales Records On China's 'Singles Day'

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Workers sort through boxes of goods Friday at a delivery company in Lin'an in east China's Zhejiang province. Singles Day on Nov. 11 is promoted by e-commerce giant Alibaba as the world's biggest online shopping event.

Today — 11/11 — is "Singles Day" in China, the holiday when online retail giant Alibaba encourages single people to celebrate and buy presents for themselves.

And boy, did they buy.

Alibaba says that over the course of 24 hours, Chinese shoppers spent $17.79 billion on the site. That's a bit short of the $20 billion some analysts had expected sales to reach but easily surpasses the previous record, last year's $14.3 billion.

An even more remarkable number: Shanghai Daily reports that the sales total blew past $1.5 billion in the first seven minutes of the event.

To put these numbers in context: Last year on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, according to Adobe, American shoppers spent about $4.45 billion online (and $12 billion at brick and mortar shops). And that's over the span of two days, not just one — and counting all retailers, not just one site.

Cyber Monday online sales, meanwhile, were just over $3 billion, CNBC says.

We should note that not everybody takes Alibaba's word on how much it rakes in during this annual holiday.

In May, Alibaba announced it was being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over its accounting practices. As Reuters reported at the time, one of the areas the SEC was focusing on was "operating data from its annual 'Singles' Day' sale."

"Some merchants in China have questioned whether results from the Nov. 11 Singles' Day promotion ... are as high as reported by Alibaba," Reuters said.

Whatever the precise sales figures are, NPR's Rob Schmitz reports that Singles Day is China's largest shopping and advertising event, watched as a barometer of China's consumer sector.

A few years ago, NPR's Laura Sullivan reported on its relatively short history:

"In the 1990s, Chinese university students began celebrating being unattached on Nov. 11, which of course is abbreviated 11/11.

"The idea was for singles to go out, go to parties, go to bars without all the Valentine's Day commercial schmaltz.

"At least that's what it was. Now it's the biggest commercial holiday on the planet. ... Alibaba began promoting the celebrations in recent years as a way for singles to treat themselves to something special, and online retailers jumped in, offering deep discounts on purchases."

In addition to steep discounts on the site, Alibaba also celebrates with a gala event.

"The only glitch this year was singer Katy Perry's abrupt cancellation of a performance of the event's kickoff ceremony," Rob says. "Instead, online viewers had to settle for Kobe Bryant and David and Victoria Beckham."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

A previous version of this post said Alibaba had a goal of $20 billion in sales; that figure was projected by analysts, not set by the company.