SAN FRANCISCO — Alibaba and other Chinese e-commerce companies held the world’s biggest one-day shopping spree Wednesday. Estimates are that this year’s Singles Day could reach as high as $11 billion in sales.
In the first 90 minutes of the 24-hour sale, which kicked off at midnight Wednesday in Beijing, Alibaba said total sales exceeded $5 billion. About 72% of sales were from mobile phones.
“It’s literally a 24-hour orgy of consumption,” said Michael Zakkour, vice president, China/Asia Pacific Practice at global consulting firm Tompkins International.
Alibaba (BABA) shares closed flat at $81.43 in New York on Tuesday.
Singles Day is a creation of Chinese online retailer Alibaba, which six years ago took an obscure Valentine’s Day-like holiday and turned it into an excuse to go shopping for oneself. In its English materials, the company is branding it as a Global Shopping Festival.
Singles Day started out as Alibaba-specific, but now it’s spreading to other e-commerce platforms, such as JD.com, which has about 25% of the Chinese e-commerce market, said Kevin Carter, founder of EMQQ, the Emerging Markets Internet & E-commerce ETF based in San Francisco.
Alibaba has struggled since its much-anticipated IPO in the United States last year, though its stock has been rising this fall. Still, whatever Singles Day sales might say about Alibaba as a company, the broader message is the growing importance of China and its rising middle class as a critical global market.
Last year, Alibaba did $9.3 billion in revenue, shipping 278 million orders in 24 hours. Singles Day contributed 2.5% to Alibaba’s overall sales for the year in 2014, said Sandy Shen, a Beijing-based analyst with the Gartner Group.
Unlike Black Friday in the U.S., which is very much about door-buster sales and getting up early to get to the mall, Singles Day started as an e-commerce event and still occurs mostly online, so there’s not much to see as it’s happening.
“You’ve literally got hundreds of millions of Chinese who are in their homes, in their offices and on their mobile phones buying. You’re standing next to somebody on the subway, but you don’t realize they’re dropping about $500 on Singles Day sales on their phone,” said Zakkour, author of China’s Super Consumers.
As the celebration becomes ingrained in the culture, retailers are having to work harder and offer better prices to get consumers to buy, Gartner’s Shen said.
“Some consumers are getting more realistic and only buy when it is a good deal. Quite a number of merchants will inflate the price before giving discounts, and the actual price isn’t that much cheaper,” she said.
That means it’s not always a high profit-margin arena for U.S. companies.
“American firms will have to sacrifice margin since Chinese shoppers expect extremely low prices as they seek out the best deals,” said Joel Backaler, an analyst with Frontier Strategy Group.
Sold, but not made, in China
Today, Single’s Day primarily is a Chinese phenomenon. Almost all the marketing in done in Chinese and is aimed at the Chinese market for delivery there.
“It’s a question of the logistics associated with getting you your purchase,” Alibaba’s Paul Kranhold said.
But even if American consumers aren’t shopping during Singles Day, American companies are very busy selling.
“For them, it’s getting their brands inside China and focusing on this huge opportunity,” Kranhold said.
China has an estimated 600 million to 700 million middle class consumers, and American companies have been quick to see the potential.
“It’s a huge global opportunity for them. It’s a massive chance for them to engage with the largest and fastest growing consumer class in the world,” Zakkour said.
It’s also a market where buyers often reject locally made goods, giving U.S. companies an in.
“Chinese consumers demand authentic high-quality products as diverse as baby formula, luxury shopping bags and organic produce, because they cannot trust product safety and authenticity domestically in China,” said Backaler, who authored China Goes West, a book about Chinese companies going global.
All told, sales in China in this one 24-hour period are expected to be larger than the Black Friday weekend and Cyber Monday combined, he said.
The event has had a ripple effect in brick and mortar stores in China, which are now holding their own Singles Day sales.
It’s also a cultural event. There was a gala opening in Beijing and a huge, star-studded variety show broadcast on nationwide TV Tuesday night that included American actor Kevin Spacey, whose Netflix drama House of Cards is a huge hit in China.
Amazon’s global competition
Alibaba represents serious global competition for Amazon. Some see the two CEOs, Jack Ma and Jeff Bezos, in a power struggle to rule the e-commerce world.
But the logistics of delivering around the globe make it hard for Alibaba to really go up against Amazon on its home turf.
“It’s hard for me to envision a time, if I need a box of pens or my wife needs a chair to sit in at a soccer game, that we’d go to Alibaba and not Amazon Prime,” Carter said.
Still, “things change, and things change fast in this space,” he said.
Alibaba may have a hard time gaining a foothold in the U.S., but it’s already working hard to develop markets internationally.
“Jack Ma has a mission in life, which is to become the first truly global e-commerce destination. The company is opening platforms in India and South America. In Russia, its AliExpress is the No. 1 e-commerce platform,” Zakkour said.
Beginnings among single students
The holiday first started among university students in Nanjing in the 1990s, as a day for bachelors to gather with friends and meet new people.
The date, 11-11, was chosen because it’s a grouping of 1’s, or singles. It morphed to include women and be a general “meet possible mates” day.
Alibaba rebranded it as a day for unmarried people to buy items they wanted, and in 2009 launched massive online sales on the day.
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