China’s biggest shopping festival has already begun. Like Christmas, Singles Day has sprawled from a day into a shopping season. There’s a whole culture of discount shopping on Taobao and its peers—and this year, our intrepid reporters are going to take you to the front lines of the e-commerce wars as they hunt for bargains.  

You need to be prepared, focused, and quick. If your internet connection is bad, you won’t get anything, Jiayi warned me. When you are competing with millions of people over limited stock, every millisecond counts. 

For the past year, my colleague and Taobao coach Jiayi Shi has been training me in the art of the shopping festival deal. In June, we spent the weeks before midsummer shopping festival 6.18 building trains in an in-app game, cashing out a cool RMB 9 and RMB 11 ($1.35 and $1.55).

READ MORE: I spent weeks playing games on Taobao and won $1.55

Disappointed and frustrated, I continued with my Taobao addiction as normal over the next few months, doom-scrolling without buying anything during idle moments. 

But when Singles Day season came around, I was ready for more. Singles Day is Christmas to 6.18’s Labor Day, in American terms. Like Christmas, it’s sprawling the calendar with sales that start as early as three weeks before the Nov. 11 main event.

By mid-October, my monkey brain had forgotten all about the time I wasted in June, and I clicked on the new game mentally salivating at the thought of the tiny drops of dopamine that would come over the next few weeks. 

The new game turned out to be a cat. Literally, just a cat. You pet it, and get rewards. That’s it. Taobao knows how to get my brain to stoop pretty low searching for those hits of dopamine, but I won’t go that low. 

I asked Jiayi what to do, and she told me I was ready. It was time for the epitome of online shopping: The Lipstick King’s pre-sale livestream. 

Training day

Livestreaming is a whole other level of Taobao shopping. It’s the big leagues: Tens of millions of people join in events like Li Jiaqi’s Singles Day pre-sale, hoping to get big discounts. 

The first step is planning: The King posted all the products he would be selling on his Weibo, outlining the price and overall discount. Most of them were cosmetics, the product he is best-known for, but the list included some oddities: A smart lock, a massage chair, a mattress. 

The goods are sold in bundles: you buy one or two full size items and get a lot of free samples or travel-size versions, so you get more bang for your buck. 

A lot of these deals aren’t exactly discounts—more like free gifts. You buy one 100ml bottle of perfume, and they throw in 10 sample-size bottles for free. You’re actually paying full price for the first bottle, but it’s billed as a 60% discount on a per-ml basis. Jiayi told me that there’s a hot debate on Chinese social media about whether these are really discounts. 

The biggest offers would be on the King’s livestreams on Oct. 20 and 21, three weeks before Singles Day on Nov. 11. During, Singles Day season, the King’s livestream runs at least five hours a day. 

The biggest sell

On Tuesday, Oct. 20, after a full day’s work, Jiayi arrived at my house at 7 p.m. “Are you ready?” she asked me. “I’m ready!” I replied, excited. 

My target was a bundle of L’Occitane’s four best-selling luxury hand creams, Jiayi wanted to get L’Oreal Revita lifting face masks. Both were about 60% off in total based on the free extras.

We sat down and turned on the livestream on Taobao. While Li Jiaqi was listing all the products he would be selling over the next five to six hours, Jiayi walked me through the basics. He’s going advertise the product for a few minutes, and then count down: “three, two, one.” Once he yells “one,” you have to click the little basket on the bottom left of the screen which takes you to the product page, where you can buy. 

Actually, because it’s a pre-sale, you don’t buy anything on the spot. You are just putting down deposits, and you will pay the rest of the money on Nov. 1. Because of this, it’s very important to tick a box saying you agree not to get back your deposit before you click “Buy.” 

If you don’t tick this box, a pop-up will appear telling you must do it. You will lose at least one second going back and ticking it. This second will probably mean you lose the product. 

We quickly learned that the products we wanted would be going on sale after midnight. We kept watching nonetheless, as thousands of eye creams, moisturizers, and hair conditioners were sold in minutes. 

The Lipstick King was not what I expected. TV shopping hosts in the West are usually quite chirpy. Li is a whole other kind of host. He is authoritative, almost abrasive. He doesn’t waste time. He wrangles the arms of his assistants in front of the camera, painted with different shades of lipstick or eyeshadow. He is mesmerizing, but it doesn’t feel like he is making a sales pitch. It feels like you’re joining a movement.

Singles Day Lipstick King livestreaming livestream Li Jiaqi Taobao E-commerce

‘Lipstick king’ Li Jiaqi (at rear) is less chirpy QVC host, more charismatic cult leader than TechNode reporter expected before her first experience mainlining e-commerce. In a two-day livestreaming sales event kicking off the Singles Day shopping festival, he uses an assistant’s arm as a lipstick palette. (Gif captured by Jiayi Shi)

At some point I realized that 31 million people were watching. “I’ve never competed on this scale in my life,” I told Jiayi, “I need to get a drink.” I didn’t, fearing that alcohol would impair my ability to compete. 

I was stressed. Could I tap my phone faster than the millions of other people watching? Would I get my luxurious hand cream at a fraction of the sticker price? There was only one way to find out. 

I grew up watching the consumerist culture of the US from afar: People getting trampled on Black Friday would make the news in Greece. But I never participated in something of the sort. The Singles Day livestream is the online version of Black Friday. I felt millions of people watching simultaneously, poised to go through the same motions I would. I couldn’t wrap my head around the scale of what I was a part of. 

Show time

By midnight, 100 million people had joined. Jiayi had gone home and was supporting me through texts and voice notes; a last minute cram session before the big moment.

At 12.20 a.m., my hand cream went on sale. I screamed. I clicked all the buttons. In my delirious haste, I forgot the agreement box. The error box popped up. In the milliseconds it took me to go back and tick “yes, keep my money forever,” I felt a mix of hope and disappointment. Maybe, if I just clicked fast enough… Maybe…

It had been less than 20 seconds since the cream went on sale when I finally clicked “buy.” It was already sold out. 

I was devastated. I think I would have cried if I wasn’t supposed to shoot a selfie video for TechNode. 

“Don’t worry about it. It’s hard. It was your first time,” Jiayi texted me. “I guess this is the closest thing a foreigner gets to feeling the competition of the gaokao,” I texted back, referring to China’s two-day pressure-cooker college entrance examination. 

I went to sleep still checking the livestream. The next day, I watched Li Jiaqi’s livestream again. I didn’t plan on buying anything, but I couldn’t help myself. 

Calmer and more confident, I was ready to tap. I barely understood what the Lipstick King was saying, but he was somehow convincing me to purchase cosmetics. 

“Maybe I’ll buy this eyeshadow palette, what do you think?” I texted Jiayi, who was also watching. “BUY BUY BUY” she texted back. 

There were 150 million people watching now, but the competition was less intense. Perhaps the products were less desirable. Perhaps people were just tired, all 150 million of us. There was one face mask that me and Jiayi managed to buy that was competitive, it sold out in a couple of minutes. But I was ready. I ticked the box. I bought it. 

Before signing off at 11.00 p.m. that second night. I also bought a pair of Dr. Martens (at 25% off) that I didn’t intend to. I would feel bad for spending money on shoes I don’t need, but now I’ve felt the magic of the Lipstick King. You can’t blame yourself for falling for David Copperfield’s tricks.

The Lipstick King is still doing livestreams every day. Millions of people join him. Me? I’m just waiting for Nov. 1, to pay the rest of the money and see my products dispatched. 

For now, I’m done with livestreams. I have to prepare my shopping cart for the Singles Day showdown when the clock hits midnight on Nov. 10. But somewhere deep down I know, it’s just a matter of time before I fall back under the king’s spell. 

Eliza was TechNode's blockchain and fintech reporter until July 2021, when she moved to CoinDesk to cover crypto in Asia. Get in touch with her via email or Twitter.