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2021-11-13 09:04:42 Voices

It all used to feel so exciting. I can still remember the long lines on campus to pick up packages after another “Double Eleven” shopping festival in the early- to mid-2010s. It was winter in Beijing, but the cold November winds couldn’t chill my fellow students’ enthusiasm for all the cheap new stuff they’d scooped up on sale.

Last week, when I suddenly remembered the big day was just around the corner, I opened Alibaba’s Taobao platform and its primary rival JD.com to find my shopping carts empty. It was a stark visual reminder that something had changed. Had I lost my enthusiasm for Double Eleven?

Perhaps I’m just getting older, but I’m far from the only person who feels this way. On the popular social medial platform Douban, a group named “Don’t Buy” has attracted more than 300,000 members in a little over a year. Members are known as “anti-consumerists” or by the more esoteric moniker “rationalist geese.” They post about marketing tricks and share practical tips for avoiding impulse purchases like how to unfollow livestreamers or change the color of shopping app interfaces to more calming tones.

To be fair, sales during this year’s festival continued to rise, with Alibaba reporting an 8.5% sales increase year-over-year. JD fared slightly better, with a 29% increase, but even this feels anticlimactic compared to the heady, not so long-ago days of the mid-2010s.

What’s going on? Why do so many people, me included, suddenly seem to have lost their enthusiasm for a day that once symbolized Chinese consumer power?

Chinese e-commerce platforms adopted a more muted approach to the shopping festival this year, partly in response to increased regulatory scrutiny of their business practices and what regulators termed “barbaric growth” strategies. But if anything, this has only made the festival more important to their futures, as platforms are forced to abandon anti-competitive policies that allowed them to squeeze merchants. Even officials have an incentive to keep enthusiasm for the festival alive after China’s retail sector reported sluggish sales numbers this summer.

One simple explanation for consumers’ disinterest is that we’re all simply tired of the platforms’ games. For years, many of the discounts associated with the festival have existed only on paper; in some cases, they’re price hikes. For example, a wireless speaker I had my eye on was listed as on sale this year despite costing significantly more than it did just six months ago. I suppose it’s possible that the company is just an innocent victim of the global chip shortage, but similar mysterious price spikes happen just before every Double Eleven.

Meanwhile, platforms and merchants have bet increasingly big on complex discounts and gamification to encourage shoppers to buy more. These could be fun at first, but some of them now feel like they need a degree in calculus to figure out. Not to mention how, after more than 10 years, it’s hard to ignore all the needless junk we’ve accumulated just to save a little extra money. As far as I’m concerned, there are few words in the modern Chinese language more annoying than coudan, or “fill out your bill,” a gimmick in which you are required to buy a relatively cheap item — a T-shirt from last season, your 12th pair of socks this year, or a roll of double-sided tape you’ll toss in your closet and forget about until the next time you move — to meet an arbitrary purchase threshold for a bigger discount.

Double Eleven consumption is no longer driven by positive emotions such as pleasure and excitement, but by negative feelings like a fear of missing out.

Unsurprisingly, all this produces tremendous amounts of needless waste. Using data provided by the State Post Bureau, state media outlet Xinhua estimated that China’s annual volume of packages delivered ballooned from 3.67 billion in 2011 to a predicted 95.5 billion this year. Almost 5 billion of those were shipped between Nov. 1 and Nov. 11 this year, according to the State Post Bureau.

In addition to the negative externalities of overconsumption, there’s the fact that the simple act of spending itself doesn’t give me the sense of satisfaction it once did. For a long time, one of the major criticisms of Double Eleven has been the need to wait in front of your smartphone or computer screen for the stroke of midnight on November 11 to quickly buy whatever you had your eye on, as companies trained consumers to take advantage of “special” prices only offered at midnight or in limited quantities. But in an economy where overtime and endless side hustles have become the norm, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s really worth sacrificing one’s sleep, health and peace of mind in hopes of saving a few hundred yuan.

Perhaps realizing that these midnight panic buying sessions were losing their appeal, e-commerce platforms have recently started allowing customers to fix the price of items by paying a deposit in advance. But even this is merely a symptom of yet another arms race: JD moved up the start time of its special offers to 8 p.m., and now there’s a pre-Double Eleven shopping festival on November 1. All this causes more anxiety, not less, especially as platforms continue to push blink and you’ll miss it discounts and merchants release coupons in small batches to keep customers constantly coming back.

One sentiment that feels more and more common in online discussions of the festival is a sense of helplessness. Double Eleven consumption is no longer driven by positive emotions such as pleasure and excitement, but by negative feelings like a fear of missing out. After all, it’s hard to know if prices on Double Eleven are truly at their lowest, but we do know that they’ll rise afterward.

This fear-based approach to marketing encourages the belief that we are by default living in a state of deprivation, and that only by participating in platforms’ games can we drag ourselves up to a fair starting point. It’s a feeling especially prominent among China’s Generation Z, who grew up immersed in the internet and as a result have adopted this pessimistic view of the relationship between the individual and big business pretty much wholesale. It’s no wonder, then, that they have greeted the heavy-handed reining in of the country’s internet giants over the past year with more applause than boos.

A meme from the Douban group “Don’t Buy.” From Douban user “心里长草,” translated by Sixth Tone

A meme from the Douban group “Don’t Buy.” From Douban user “心里长草,” translated by Sixth Tone

Double Eleven will set more records this year, at least on paper. Yet it still feels like we’ve reached a turning point. While slowing sales growth may mark the decline of a once-prominent symbol of Chinese consumer power, it doesn’t mean the end of that power. Instead, the focus this year seems to be on another metric: sustainability. In October, for example, Alibaba’s chief marketing officer Chris Tung said the company was shifting its attention from big sales numbers to “sustainable growth.”

That still seems some way off. For one, sustainability would require a far greater commitment to transparency, better protections for consumers and workers, and more environmentally friendly business practices. Perhaps then, treating yourself to a nice new purchase might be able to spark joy again, rather than fatigue, anxiety, and guilt.

Ultimately, I kind of miss the era when Double Eleven was just a simple celebration of cool new things, but not nearly as much as I’m looking forward to the day when November 11 is once again just another chilly day in early winter.

Translator: David Ball; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Shijue/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)