Alibaba invented the Singles Day shopping event in 2009 to encourage consumer who were not in a relationship to embrace a single lifestyle. The sales holiday, now in its 11th year, has grown into the world’s largest online shopping event.
Even so, only five of the 50 largest retailers ranked in Internet Retailer 2019 Top 500 had Singles Day-related promotions on Monday, which was also Veterans Day. And most of those merchants that offered discounts were relatively subdued in their promotion of Singles Day. For example, ASOS, No. 32, in the Internet Retailer 2019 Top 1000, featured a purple bar on its homepage that noted it was offering 20% off everything on its site for Singles Day.
Another eight retailers had Veterans Day discounts. For example, Amazon, No. 1, offered veterans and active military members a $79 one-year membership to its Prime loyalty program. That’s a 33% discount from Prime’s $119 annual fee. Apple, No. 2, featured a banner at the top its homepage that read, “Here’s to the brave ones. We’re proud to honor America’s veterans and service members this Veterans Day and every day.” The retailer featured a link that offers a 10% discount to shoppers who verify their veteran or active military status with online verification platforms ID.me.
Meanwhile, a number of U.S. merchants featured sales and promotions unrelated to either Singles Day or Veterans Day. For example, both Williams-Sonoma, No. 31, and Net-A-Porter, No. 35, featured “friends and family” discounts on their sites and apps. And 14 merchants, including Best Buy, No. 13, featured sales that explicitly referenced “Black Friday” or the “holidays.” That reflects the reality of this year’s holiday season; with only 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a number of U.S. retailers are looking for ways to drive shoppers to buy earlier in the holiday season.
Alibaba’s record-setting day
Despite Singles Day’s relatively modest presence within the United States, the shopping set a new record as online sales soared roughly 25% past last year’s record haul. Alibaba operates Taobao (No. 1 in the ranking of Internet Retailer Online Marketplaces) and Tmall (No. 2).
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An estimated 500,000 shoppers from China to Russia to Argentina swarmed the ecommerce giant’s marketplaces to scoop up everything from Apple Inc. and Xiaomi Corp. gadgets to Ugandan mangoes. The company again hosted a televised entertainment revue in Shanghai to run alongside the bargain-hunting, this time enlisting Taylor Swift and Asian pop icon G.E.M. to pump up sales.
The world’s largest shopping event has become an annual ritual for Asia’s largest company, part showcase of commercialism and part publicity blitz. Also referred to as “Double 11” because it falls on Nov. 11, it’s closely watched by investors keen to gauge how willing Chinese consumers are to spend as economic growth threatens to slip below 6%.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to fuel uncertainty and roil global commerce. Among China’s largest corporations, Alibaba is expected to better ride out the storm, thanks to booming online consumption in the world’s No. 2 economy. On Sunday, Alvin Liu, a Tmall general manager, said Alibaba doesn’t expect any impact on its cross-border import business from an ongoing trade spat.
“Alibaba will probably be the one that will be able to circumvent and come out from the trade war in better shape” versus Baidu Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., Richard Wong, head of ICT for the Asia Pacific at Frost & Sullivan, told Bloomberg Television. “The current sentiment and confidence in terms of spending is still relatively high.”
While Alibaba and its rivals routinely trumpet record sums in the event’s aftermath, it’s unclear how much Nov. 11 sales actually will contribute to the bottom line given the enormous discounting involved. A good result however could bolster Alibaba’s effort to raise as much as $15 billion in a landmark Hong Kong share sale this month, according to people familiar with the matter.
Singles Day’s history
Singles Day emerged as a uniquely Chinese antidote to the sentimentality surrounding Valentine’s Day. Emerging on college campuses across the country, it takes its name from the way the date is written numerically as 11/11, which resembles “bare branches,” a local expression for the unattached.
It’s now become an excuse for people to splurge. Last year, sales at Alibaba climbed 27% to 213.50 billion yuan, equivalent to $30.70 billion at the time. More merchandise is sold online over the 24-hour period than during the five-day U.S. holiday buying spree that begins on Thanksgiving and ends on Cyber Monday.
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But the company faced stiff competition this year from smaller platforms including JD.com Inc. and Pinduoduo Inc., the aggressively expanding upstart that’s encroaching on the market leaders’ turf. They vied for the wallets of Chinese shoppers particularly in relatively untapped rural areas. All employ heavy discounting and hard-sell tactics in the run-up to and during the 24 hours in a bid to best the previous year’s record.
“Overall, we think this year will likely see a more competitive Double 11 period,” Ella Ji, an analyst at China Renaissance Holdings Ltd., said in a report. “We anticipate each platform will spend more on subsidies.”
Daniel Zhang, who took over as Alibaba chairman from billionaire Jack Ma in September, pioneered the show in its present form in 2015. The Singles’ Day impresario passes the baton this year to Jiang Fan, president of ecommerce marketplaces Taobao and Tmall, and a potential successor to Zhang himself.
“Over the years, we’ve seen consumers become more diverse and younger. Each generation of consumers needs their own peers to serve them,” Zhang said in a post on Alibaba’s blog. “I think this young team is the future.”
The 2019 edition came with slight twists to the formula. Alibaba, stung by criticism it harmed the environment by shipping an estimated 1 billion packages in a single day—has enjoined its logistics arm Cainiao to set up recycling centers at 75,000 locations. It says it will also work with courier companies to pick up used boxes and wrapping.
An expansion into Southeast Asia and less-developed areas in China plus newer services—such as transactions on food delivery site Ele.me, grocery store chain Hema and travel service Fliggy—bolstered the total. The company also brought in livestreamers including Kim Kardashian to appeal to younger buyers.
Other aspects remained the same. Singles Day has always been an opportunity for Alibaba to test the limits of its cloud computing, delivery and payments systems. Leaving little to chance, Alibaba sent teams across the nation ahead of Nov. 11 to help myriad outlets prepare for the festival. Some 200,000 brands had been expected to participate in 2019‘s edition of the festival.
“Singles Day is becoming popular outside of China, especially in the ASEAN region,” said Patrick Winter, Ernst & Young Asia Pacific managing partner. “You’re also seeing how it’s growing in smaller cities in China.”
Internet Retailer staff contributed to this article.