U.S. Retailers Aren't Embracing Singles' Day -- a Billion-Dollar Sales Opportunity. This Retailer Is Trying to Change That.
This week, quirky online retailer ThinkGeek is busily preparing for the world’s biggest shopping event. But that event isn’t Black Friday, Cyber Monday or related in any way to the December holidays most U.S. shoppers traditionally shop for this time of year.
Instead, ThinkGeek is prepping for Singles’ Day, a Chinese holiday held each year on Nov. 11 which encourages singles to buy gifts for themselves. While the holiday emerged in the ‘90s, the event got a major boost when Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba began offering Singles’ Day sales in 2009. Today, the holiday has broken most sales records, with Alibaba expected to do $24 billion in sales this year (up from $17.8 billion in 2016), roughly three times the U.S. online sales generated last year by Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.
Despite these eye-popping numbers, most Americans have still never heard of Singles’ Day -- even as U.S. brands such as Gap and Nike participate in sales overseas. Since the holiday hasn’t yet gained traction in the U.S., ThinkGeek hasn’t just needed to promote its deals in its email blasts, social media posts and blog posts. It’s needed to educate customers that the event exists at all.
We caught up with Jeff Burchett, ThinkGeek’s director of product marketing, to learn more about why it’s one of the few retailers targeting American consumers and whether U.S. retailers should consider getting in on the action next year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is ThinkGeek participating in Single’s Day this year?
It seemed like something that would resonate with our fans. Our fans are the kind of fans that will talk to you about Festivus, a holiday made up in Seinfeld 20 years ago. They get interested in and engaged in things that are a little bit off the beaten path. We try to service all things geeky and interesting and new and unique, and not just tread down the same paths all the time.
We have some strange holidays that we celebrate at ThinkGeek. It's a thing that we've made part of our brand -- celebrating these obscure holidays -- and some are more obscure than others. We have Send ThinkGeek a Pizza Day. As I've heard it told, one of our very earliest employees, about 18 years ago, had a greater-than-average love of pizza. Send ThinkGeek a Pizza Day was celebrated on his birthday, kind of as a joke. And then it became an ongoing process. Last year we didn’t promote it outside of a ThinkGeek calendar we create, and we still received a couple dozen pizzas.
We also celebrate events like Harry Potter’s birthday with sales or big giveaways. So it’s sort of nothing new for us to be trying things that other people won’t necessarily try.
Why do you think Singles’ Day might resonate with shoppers in the States?
When we saw that Alibaba did this insane volume of sales on Singles’ Day last year that indicated to us that a lot of people were interested in it. I don't think this is the kind of thing that's going to stay particularly localized to China. You can make it into whatever you want it to be about. If you want to make it about you and your friends, you can do that. If you want to make it about your transition from being single to marrying someone, you can do that. If you want to find yourself a partner, you can do that. There are so many ways that a person can take it and make something meaningful to themselves out of it that it seems like a really worthwhile and valid holiday to me.
What have you learned from Chinese companies in how they target shoppers for Singles’ Day?
So, one of the things that we wanted to sort of push on it, for our fans, is the idea that 'You are the single you,' There's not anybody else who's got your own set of interests and the collection of the things that make up your interest in fandom. So we're pushing on that and saying it's OK to be single, it's OK to be married, it's OK to be whatever you want to be, be happy being you, because you're the only one of you. And that seems to be the tack that a lot of the Chinese companies have taken as well. And so far, it's resonating pretty well, I think, with our fans.
What products is ThinkGeek offering Singles’ Day promotions on?
“Orpheus, the Saddest Music Machine,” always does really well for us but we've definitely seen that one bump. He’s this cute little robot made out of laser-cut wood, and it’s got a music box inside it and plays a melancholy tune. Our Shark Attack Bowl has popped up and done crazy well. That’s a very ThinkGeek product, I would say. Not many people would make a bowl that’s a shark’s mouth that you eat out of.
A lot of them fall into the general category of products that we would say are “to treat yourself.” With sales like this, especially at this time of year, we tend to mark stuff down that is bestseller stuff. This is kind of a, “we’ll help you treat yourself for stuff we know you love” type of a sale.
Most shoppers don’t really know about this holiday. What is ThinkGeek doing to address that?
We have taken the path of education on this, which I don't think would work for every retailer, because we at ThinkGeek and our fans wear the label of "geek" very proudly. And things that work here probably won't work elsewhere. So for us to go out with a message that is, "Hey, learn about this cool new holiday that you've never heard about before. This is pretty interesting," is something that resonates with our fans that might not with a lot of others. So, that is one of the ways that we've positioned this, as an opportunity for education expansion for our fans to tell them about something new and interesting.
Why don't other U.S. retailers get in on Singles’ Day?
I would say, number one, people just don't know about it. I mean, it's easy to not know about it if you don't shop on AliExpress or maybe you've just never encountered it. Number two, I think a lot of people are just stuck in a position of saying, "That's a Chinese holiday." Number three, people don't have the ability, the time, the runway to execute on something like this. One of the analogies that we use here during crunch time in Q4 is like, "It's really hard to look at the horizon when you're stuck staring down at your feet to make sure that you don't trip over something." If you're constantly just trying to see how to get through today or this week, it's really hard to look way off in the distance and say, "Are there any cool opportunities coming 12, 18 months from now that we should we should be looking at?" We started talking about this a little over a year ago here as something that we might want to get involved in. So we started tracking it and seeing how other retailers, whether they're in the U.S. or not, were performing with it.
What have you learned so far about Singles' Day, for those who might want to get in on this next year?
People love holidays. People love a reason to be excited for something and to be happy and to celebrate. I think that's just part of human nature, that we're sort of looking for fun and exciting things to do. We're looking for shared experiences. That's one of the great things about fandom. If you like Batman and I like Batman, we immediately have something to talk about. We have a community, we have something in common, and the more of that that you're a part of, the more of a built-in community you have. People are looking for that experience, and we've found that people are willing to come along for the ride with us.
If you train your customers to expect something, then they will. And if you constantly try new things and give them something new to latch onto, it increases engagement, it increases their interest in your brand, it increases your credibility as a brand that is at the forefront. Nobody wants to align themselves or associate themselves with something that's stagnating or stuck. Everybody wants to be part of the next thing. So the only advice that I would give is, really and truly be willing to try new things, and maybe give Singles' Day 2018 a shot. I don't think it's going to get any smaller.
This story has been updated to clarify the total combined U.S. online sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2016.
Related video: How to Build a Successful Brick-and-Mortar Startup