Alibaba Group founder and chairman Jack Ma performed a magic trick at this year's 11.11 global shopping festival gala celebration. Photo: Alibaba

Keifei Zhang and three of her fellow Guangzhou university students were holed up in their dormitory room Thursday night, eagerly watching the clock count down to midnight and the start of Singles Day — a once-cutesy marketing gimmick started by Alibaba Group that has now morphed into a three-week orgy of online consumption.

The four friends had loaded up their virtual shopping carts with all the goodies they wanted to buy. “All of us waited till midnight to hit the checkout button on our phones,” Zhang said. “But I couldn’t load the checkout page to make the purchase.”

Not surprising, given the more than US$1 billion of orders that flooded into Alibaba’s coffers in the opening five minutes. After an hour, the total hit US$5.2 billion. By 3pm, and with nine hours still left on the opening day’s shop-till-you-drop clock, the US$13.4 billion in sales had already eased past last year’s total.

Cellphones were used to make 84% of sales in the first two hours — underscoring the rapid adoption of mobile shopping by Chinese consumers.

Singles Day was invented by students in the 1990s, according to the Communist Party-owned People’s Daily, which says the date (11-11) is reminiscent of the Chinese phrase – “bare branches for bachelors and spinsters.”

Alibaba’s Tmall site began marketing the day in 2009 with only 27 merchants. Today, there are tens of thousands of vendors in what is an increasingly global event for the group. The day turned from an opportunity to seek out a partner – or celebrate singledom – into an online shopping orgy.

The company’s phenomenal success has drawn inevitable copycats.

Love Bonito and Lazada in Singapore, Momo of Taiwan and Japan’s Rakuten Global Market have all launched their own versions of Singles Day events. Rakuten’s Singles Day Campaign in Japan started on Thursday and continues until November 24.

In Australia, Click Frenzy burst onto the scene in November 2012 as Australia’s first landmark national online sales event, it said on its website.

Every year since, on the third Tuesday in November, Click Frenzy becomes the focal point of retail in Australia – a 24-hour online shopping mega-sale that captures national attention. Its site says its campaign was modeled on Cyber Monday in the US.

Last year it is estimated the event generated more than US$90 million in sales, with more than five million visits to retailers, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Wall Street Journal offers it up for single readers.

And yes, even Old School journalistic outfits are getting in on the act.

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