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Singles’ Day signage is front-and-center at the entrance to Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.

HANGZHOU, China — Spend a few minutes walking around Alibaba’s main campus, and it’s pretty clear that something important is going on.

From the tents that employees are pitching near their desks to the placards and signs all around Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China, you know that Singles’ Day is here.

Since 2009, Alibaba has used China’s annual holiday on Nov. 11 — which originally started to celebrate and bring together those without a serious partner — to host a massive 24-hour online shopping event across its platforms. Last year, the company reeled in $9.3 billion in sales on Singles’ Day, which surpassed U.S. online shopping records on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

This year, on the eve of Singles’ Day 2015, GeekWire spent some time at Alibaba’s 9-building HQ in Hangzhou, a city located 100 miles southwest of Shanghai where Jack Ma started the company 16 years ago.

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Alibaba employees rehearse for a Singles Day event at its Hangzhou campus.

“Almost 10,000 of my colleagues will work for the Singles’ Day festival,” said Jane Jiang, one of Alibaba’s original founders who was speaking to a group of University of Washington and University of Texas basketball players at the company on Tuesday. “We have prepared for this event for over three months and we are very, very eager to see what will happen from midnight on.”

Alibaba co-founder Jane Jiang speaks at the company headquarters on Tuesday to a group of University of Washington and University of Texas basketball players.
Alibaba co-founder Jane Jiang speaks at the company headquarters on Tuesday to a group of University of Washington and University of Texas basketball players.

So far, so good for Alibaba — the company reached $5 billion in sales through the first 90 minutes of Singles’ Day on Wednesday.

Alibaba Head of International Corporate Affairs Jim Wilkinson.
Alibaba Head of International Corporate Affairs Jim Wilkinson.

“We’ve got people in tents here working so hard to make this a success,” Alibaba Head of International Corporate Affairs Jim Wilkinson said on Tuesday to the players. “This is a cultural phenomenon. It’s such a big day. And as [Alibaba founder] Jack Ma said today, it’s not about buying and selling stuff — it’s about exchanging ideas. It’s about young people in China who want the things you have.”

This year’s Singles’ Day theme is “Rock The World,” a symbol of Alibaba’s focus on expanding its reach across the globe. On Wednesday, customers using Alibaba’s platforms had access to more than six million products from over 40,000 merchants and more than 30,000 brands from 25 countries.

“We obviously hope to do better than last year in terms of total transactional volume,” Alibaba Vice Chairman Joe Tsai told GeekWire. “But that’s not a number we are focused on this year. What we’re focused on is internationalizing our business in the sense that we now have a lot more sellers on our platform that are importing products from outside China into China, given our access to 380 million consumers. That cross-border import trade objection is very, very important for us.”

Alibaba employees wear "Rock The World" shirts on campus in anticipation of Singles' Day.
Alibaba employees wear “Rock The World” shirts on campus in anticipation of Singles’ Day.

Tsai also noted that exporting product from Chinese manufacturers is an important part of Singles’ Day, particularly with Alibaba’s Ali Express platform, a global retail marketplace targeted at consumers worldwide.

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Alibaba Vice Chairman Joe Tsai accepts a gift from University of Washington senior guard Andrew Andrews at the company’s campus in Hanghzou on Tuesday.

“We’re talking about a cross-border kind of Singles Day,” he said.

Alibaba, which has seen its shares fluctuate since going public in September 2014, is also placing much of its attention this year on mobile transactions, which accounted for 72 percent of that $5 billion in initial sales thus far on Singles’ Day 2015. There were more than 27 million mobile buyers on Alibaba’s platform in the first hour of Singles’ Day this year.

“We just see a massive shift in consumer behavior from PC to mobile and this Singles’ Day is no exception,” Tsai said. “We expect a lot of activity and buying on a mobile device.”

As Alibaba focuses on expanding across the world, it is also broadening its reach in its home country. For example, the company moved much of its big Singles’ Day festivities from the Hangzhou headquarters to Beijing at the city’s National Aquatics Center, better known as the “Water Cube.”

Bloomberg reported that the shift to China’s capital “shows Alibaba’s ambitions to maintain growth, penetrate the northern region where rival JD.com Inc. is based and answer the government’s call for ‘national champions’ in technology.”

Alibaba, which does not actually produce or store any goods but instead acts as an enabler between manufacturers and consumers, is competing with companies like Seattle-based Amazon.com (which last year created its own version of Singles Day with “Prime Day“) in a race to dominate the global e-commerce arena. The focus on “Rock The World” for this year’s Singles’ Day is an example of that as Alibaba, which will ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday, looks to expand its reach beyond China.

“Our mission, starting from 1999, hasn’t changed,” Tsai said. “We want to make it easy to do business anywhere.”

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