the American level, is forecast to rise to first place as early as 2015.
The Communist Party's latest five-year development plan calls for more than quadrupling annual e-commerce volume from 2010 levels to 18 trillion yuan ($2.9 trillion) by 2015. The party tries to block access to online material deemed subversive or pornographic but promotes Web use for business and education.
“The Internet today in China is similar to television in the 1960s and '70s in the West _ the place where consumers congregate and companies need to locate,'' Boston Consulting Group said in an April report.
Alibaba, founded by a former English teacher, Jack Ma, grew into one of the world's biggest e-commerce players by linking Chinese suppliers with Western manufacturers and retailers. It branched into consumer sales with the 2003 launch of Taobao, which operates Tmall.com. Alibaba also operates China's biggest online payment system, Alipay.
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