Alibaba Group kicked off the world’s biggest shopping binge on Wednesday, an annual frenzy of consumption for hundreds of millions of people that this year will also serve as the best barometer so far of China’s post-pandemic recovery.
Sales totalled 372.3 billion yuan ($56.3bn) within the first 30 minutes on November 11 after the company added a shopping window earlier this month and included other additional services in its tally. That allowed Alibaba, one of the world’s biggest online commerce sites, to easily blow past last year’s total haul of $38bn over a 24-hour period.
But the strong sales have been overshadowed by concerns that regulators are seeking to curtail the growing influence of Alibaba and other Chinese peers. Shares of Alibaba, the largest of the country’s tech firms, sank 7.4 per cent in early Hong Kong trading on Wednesday, taking losses to nearly $100bn since Beijing this week unveiled new antitrust regulations governing the increasingly dominant internet companies.
Singles’ Day debuted in 2009 and has grown over a decade into a nationwide marathon of frantic bargain-hunting that dwarfs sales events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday in both intensity and size. 2020’s edition features a record number of brand names from Apple to Nike betting that – after months of Covid-enforced abstention – China’s 400 million-strong middle class is ready to spend on everything from Hainan beach-side vacations to takeaway coupons and electronics.
Alibaba has been benefiting after the pandemic forced Chinese consumers – who already buy about 30 per cent of the nation’s retail purchases online – to accelerate their shift to e-commerce. Homebound consumers turned grocery delivery into the industry’s hottest arena, anchoring an unprecedented surge in online activity during the nationwide lockdown. Domestic travel is accelerating, propping up Alibaba businesses such as Fliggy, while a raft of new smartphones launched during the quarter is expected to tap pent-up demand for electronics.
The strong start to this year’s sales fiesta – also known as “Double 11” – may bode well for China’s economy, providing further evidence that consumer spending, so far a laggard in the recovery, is strengthening.
“Double 11 has historically served as a very accurate indicator for what’s happening in the following year for retailers, brands as well as consumers,” said Jonathan Cheng, head of China retail at Bain & Co. “For this year, with Covid, it’ll become more important. And if you look at China, which is the first one to be coming out of Covid, it’s gonna be an indicator for other countries as well.”
The brainchild of co-founder Jack Ma and chief executive Daniel Zhang, Singles' Day was intended to be an antidote to the sentimentality of Valentine’s Day. It takes its name from the way the day is written numerically as 11/11, which resembles “bare branches”, a local expression for the unattached. Along the way, the company created the world’s largest shopping festival that has helped to propel Alibaba into a Goliath.
It’s also become an annual showcase for Alibaba’s cloud services as well as affiliate Ant Group’s Alipay mobile wallet. A record event would be another feather in the cap for Ant, which could do with a win after tightening regulatory scrutiny that torpedoed its initial public offering last week.
In a nod to the pandemic, Alibaba scaled back on live events this year and is instead relying on increased online promotions such as celebrity livestreams to draw hundreds of millions of shoppers to its e-commerce platforms. Popstar Katy Perry performed at an online event on Tuesday, four years after she pulled out from Alibaba’s annual live extravaganza to mark the shopping festival. Alongside the usual 24-hour sales period on Wednesday, 2020’s event featured an additional window for consumers to make purchases from November 1 to 3.
Shoppers can purchase heavily discounted goods like cosmetics, clothing and groceries from its Taobao and Tmall platforms and have them shipped via the company’s Cainiao logistics service, and book flights to domestic tourist hotspots on the Fliggy travel website. Kaola – purchased from NetEase last year – is participating for the first time, offering goods from 89 countries to consumers.
Foreign consumer brands have long relied on Alibaba to gain access to the Chinese middle class. That’s especially true this year, given how most economies elsewhere are grappling with a resurgence in the pandemic. During the first 111 minutes of sales on November 1, Nike and Apple were among 100 brands that reported 100 million yuan ($15m) in transactions. And Estee Lauder’s flagship store on Alibaba’s Tmall platform was the first to surpass 1bn yuan in sales, the e-commerce company said. International hotel groups Marriott International and Accor also passed the 1bn yuan transaction mark for the first time.
Expectations are high for Alibaba. Revenue in the September quarter grew at the slowest on record for the period, with customers putting off purchases on its Taobao and Tmall platforms in anticipation of deep bargains ahead. “The performance of Singles' Day might be a more important benchmark to look at, rather than the third quarter result,” said Steven Zhu, an analyst with Pacific Epoch.
As with previous years, Alibaba and its e-commerce rivals rolled out ever-larger promotions to entice consumers. Over the entire Singles' Day event, merchants could end up forking out a record 30bn yuan in discounts and subsidies to boost sales across Tmall and Taobao alone, CLSA analysts led by Elinor Leung estimated.
Those discounts may be key to enticing consumers, which have only just started to loosen their purse strings, to keep spending. China’s retail sales climbed 3.3 per cent in September from a year ago and growth may have accelerated to 5 per cent in October, as travel and other consumption picked up during the golden week holiday at the start of the month.
But overall retail sales are still down for the year – shrinking about 7 per cent in the first nine months from the same period in 2019 –and it remains to be seen if strong spending during national holidays and one-off shopping events like Singles’ Day will translate into a sustained recovery. Private consumption accounted for no more than 0.5 percentage points of gross domestic product growth in the third quarter and a full recovery in consumer confidence may only come in 2021, according to Australia & New Zealand Banking Group economist Xing Zhaopeng.
“Singles’ Day should see spending higher than a year ago but keep in mind retail sales were growing at 8 per cent before Covid-19,” said Shaun Roache, Asia-Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings. “If Singles’ Day is much better than expected, we should watch sales activity closely in December to see if this is a genuine pick-up or consumers are simply stocking up and staying cautious.”