Decoding the Hidden Numbers in China's Many E-Commerce Festivals

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There's a reason Alibaba's wine sale is being held on Sept. 9.
There's a reason Alibaba's wine sale is being held on Sept. 9. Credit: Tmall

Alibaba is hosting a new online sale of wine and spirits on Friday, Sept. 9, or 9/9. For people who don't speak Chinese, that won't mean much. For local consumers, it's logical: The word for nine in Mandarin sounds the same as the word for alcohol. Both are pronounced "jiu."

Numbers and dates have special resonance in China; online users, consumers and marketers all delight in playing and punning with them. Coded numbers are in URLs, email addresses and slang terms. And now China's e-commerce companies are cleverly using them during new sales and events.

"In China numbers can sometimes be very memorable, since they can share a similar sound to other words," said Amanda Liu, VP and creative director for brand naming at Labbrand. Here's an example: The digits 5,1,7 sound similar to the Chinese expression "wo yao chi," or "I want to eat." Naturally, 5/17, or May 17, is a day for specials from China's online food delivery services. In China, McDonald's food delivery hotline and internet address also include the digits 5-1-7, twice. Ms. Liu says numbers are so common in the ultracompetitive e-commerce market since they "really catch attention of consumers in a short time. It's important the name or identity is very recognizable or memorable at first sight."

Internet and mobile culture have spurred China's numbers games along. Inputting Chinese characters with a keyboard or mobile phone is cumbersome and time-consuming. Numbers can be a fun code, a low-tech precursor to the emoji. Since 520 sounds like "wo ai ni," or "I love you," people might text that to their girlfriend or boyfriend. And so May 20, or 5/20, has become a sort of Valentine's Day in China (and another excuse to shop for presents.)

Some numbers are considered unlucky by tradition. The number four has a pronunciation similar to the word for death; it's unlikely any Chinese companies would launch shopping festivities for 4/4, said Marina Leung, founder of Magnus Muses, a Hong Kong-based corporate communications and brand management consultancy. "You can't go wrong with 2, 3, 6 and 8, but 4 is always problematic," said Ms. Leung, who long ago chose a mobile phone number with favorable numbers in it.

Eight sounds like the word for wealth, and six evokes flow. Alibaba's rival JD.com has a sale every 6/18; that's the e-commerce platform's anniversary, but having the numbers six and eight in there doesn't hurt. Nine, in addition to being a homophone for 'alcohol,' evokes longevity and is the largest single-digit number. While Alibaba is plugging wine on 9.9, its rival Tencent hosts a philanthropic giving festival on the same date. The 9s in that case might be meant to inspire large, generous donations.

'Bare Sticks Day'

Alibaba's festival this week, hosted on its Tmall marketplace, is officially called the "Tmall 9.9 Global Wine & Spirits Festival." The internet giant also has special sales on 8.8 and 12.12. But its 11.11 festival, every Nov. 11, is by far the biggest e-commerce festival in China, and it has spurred on the other similar events on the calendar. Alibaba's platforms logged $14.3 billion in merchandise sold in 24 hours last year.

Back in 2009, the e-commerce giant settled on 11.11 as a good date for a new shopping event, for several reasons. It was a quiet time on the retail calendar, and some young people in China had started celebrating the date as a holiday for singles. They called it "Bare Sticks Day," which describes the way the date 11/11 looks written down. (In China, singles are sometimes called "bare sticks.")

Alibaba's Tmall later played down any connection between singles and its shopping holiday – perhaps realizing there was no reason to limit its target audience.

The company has stuck with doubled digits to invent new e-commerce dates. In Chinese culture, pairs are seen positively.

And given how successful 11.11 has been, "it's easy for consumers to remember and accept more 'holidays'" with a repeating digit, said Chris Tung, Alibaba Group's chief marketing officer, whose previous role was CEO of VML China.

Meaningful numbers seem to pop up often when Alibaba does business. One of its domain names is 1688.com; spoken in Mandarin, those numbers sound vaguely like "Alibaba." There's also the bonus of the double eights. And Alibaba's 2014 initial public offering happened on 9/18 – a date that can sound like "destined to get rich."

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