Tmall.com accounted for 45.1 percent of business-to-consumer online sales in China in the three months ending in September, according to Analysys International, a research firm in Beijing. 360buy was in second place with 17.4 percent. Boston Consulting Group said more products were sold through Taobao in 2010 — about 48,000 per minute — than at China's top five bricks-and-mortar retailers combined.
“Alibaba has so many assets that they can integrate that it's hard to compete with them,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting, a technology consulting firm in Beijing.
Other rivals include clothing retailer Vancl.com, bookseller Dangdang.com, Amazon.com Inc.'s joint venture with a Chinese partner, and traditional retailers such as consumer electronics chain Suning Ltd. that have expanded online. Walmart Stores Inc., which operates 340 outlets in China, boosted its online presence last month by expanding its stake in online retailer Yihaodian to a controlling 51 percent.
In addition to its e-commerce platform used by other merchants, 360buy also is China's biggest online retailer, selling consumer electronics and other goods directly to customers.
The source of Singles Day's rise as China's online shopping day is a matter of debate by Chinese commentators and industry analysts.
Some cite demographics and timing: University graduates who adopted the holiday earn more and shop online. Singles Day comes as people receive monthly paychecks and need to buy winter clothes. Unlike other events such as the Lunar New Year, China's biggest family holiday, it involves few other expenses such as travel or banquets, leaving more money for gifts.
And there is the romantic angle that might prompt shoppers to open their wallets.
“This is about giving a gift that will woo that perfect someone,” Natkin said. “If you play your cards right, you only need to make that purchase once.”
Lei, the Shanghai designer, wound up buying only the pillow from her shopping list for $18 because other discounts weren't as big as she hoped.
“I will wait to see if I can get them later,” she said.
Companies began preparing for Sunday months in advance.
At its headquarters in Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, Alibaba set up 200 lounge chairs for its 800-strong staff to rest during the day. The company rented 180 rooms at nearby hotels for longer breaks.
On Tmall.com, called Tian Mao, or “Sky Cat,” in Chinese, goods ranged from clothes, books and furniture to discounts on restaurant meals and travel packages. An auto dealer in the southern city of Shangrao offered 23 percent off BMW 3-series luxury cars ordered Sunday.
China's delivery companies had 800,000 employees working Sunday, including 65,000 temporary workers hired for the holiday, the China Daily newspaper said, citing the country's delivery industry association.
One of the biggest, YTO Express Co. Ltd. in Shanghai, planned to have 30,000 vehicles on the road, the newspaper said, and expanded its daily handling capacity by 50 percent to 6 million packages for the day.