Ready, set, shop! Alibaba gears up for Singles' Day

It's that time of year again: When Chinese netizens celebrate not having anyone special in their lives by buying billions of dollars worth of products online.

Singles' Day—so named because the date Nov. 11 has four singles (11/11)—was started as an in-joke between university students, but has morphed into China's equivalent of Cyber Monday. Spurred by Alibaba and its network of online retailers, the day has grown from $7 million in sales in 2009 to over $5.7 billion last year for Jack Ma's company.

And as the holiday moves away from its bachelor roots to become a more inclusive affair, analysts expect more record sales figures.

Employees work at an Alibaba Group warehouse, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
Employees work at an Alibaba Group warehouse, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

In fact, Alibaba recorded its first $1 billion in sales this Singles' Day in only 17 minutes—it took about an hour last year. After about the same amount of time this year, Alibaba touched $2 billion in gross merchandise volume:

This year, Alibaba's sales are expected to be about 50 billion yuan ($8.17 billion), a 40 percent increase from last year, according to Ben Cavender, principal at China Market Research Group.

Vanessa Zeng, a Beijing-based Forrester senior analyst for China's e-commerce sector, estimated that sales could even reach 60 billion yuan ($9.8 billion) with the continued growth of mobile shopping in China. Alibaba said it saw $32 billion in sales on mobile in September alone.

But the day is about much more than just posting big sales numbers, analysts said.

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"Alibaba uses this event to reward consumers and reinforce its e-commerce influence in China market," Zeng said. "The Singles' Day event has become the most influential e-commerce campaign in China. Almost all e-tailers and even offline retailers join this event. Alibaba tries to demonstrate its leading position and gather as many merchants as possible to its platform through this event, and hit its competitors."

Alibaba, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange in September, has seen its stock surge more than 72 percent from its record $25 billion IPO price. Its competitors in the Chinese e-commerce space, meanwhile, will be hoping to catch some of the Nov. 11 sales fervor. JD.com, Suning and VIP.com have all been marketing heavily for the sales festival, Zeng said.

Even brick-and-mortar sales operations in China are getting in on the action because they "don't want to be left behind," said Sandy Shen, Shanghai-based director of e-commerce research at Gartner.

Alibaba Group monitors internet sales on China's biggest e-commerce day of the year.
Alibaba: 'Singles' Day' by the numbers   

Alibaba, though, is pressing hard to completely own the holiday, analysts said. This year's Singles' Day has seen the company push a "globalization" theme that enables shoppers throughout the world to participate through the English-language AliExpress platform, Zeng said.

In total, Alibaba's network will include 27,000 participating merchants and 42,000 brands.

In some instances, Alibaba is even going local: AliExpress is offering up to 50 percent off on snowboards and related equipment to mark the upcoming ski season in Russia, according to the company.

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And while Singles' Day may be an opportunity to bring Chinese e-commerce to the world, Alibaba is also using it to bring the world to Chinese shoppers: The company's Tmall platform is offering products from companies, like American Eagle Outfitters and Calvin Klein, otherwise missing from China's retail landscape.

Alibaba said it predicts that popular items for this year will include mixed nuts from Costco, and cosmetics from Japan.

Preorders for the event started in mid-October: Consumers can pay a deposit upfront to reserve the product at the Singles' Day price and pay the balance on Tuesday.

Duan Ling, a 20-year-old student in Beijing, said he has already spent hours on websites like Taobao and Tmall. "You don't usually get so many special deals, so 11/11 is the best time to grab whatever you want," she said. "But it's not good for my bank account."

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Delivery staff, meanwhile, are bracing for a busy day. "11/11 might be fun and shopping for many, but for us, it is busy, busy, busy. I have to work extra hard to make sure delivery is on time. There's more than the usual amount," said Ye Junrong, who works for an express delivery service.

Roughly 1.25 million delivery personnel are expected to be utilized, according to Alibaba.

—CNBC's Jaime Sasso, Ansuya Harjani and Wendy Min contributed to this report.