SHENZHEN — Alibaba smashed through Singles Day records, recording $1 billion in sales in the first five minutes of the Chinese e-commerce giant’s annual 24-hour shopping bonanza.
In 2015, the company recorded $1 billion in transactions within eight minutes of the start of the mega shopping holiday.
Within half an hour, Alibaba tallied around $4 billion in merchandise sold on its online platforms, which include Taobao.com and Tmall.com. More than 150 million purchases were made during this period, 90 percent via mobile phones, the company said. Within the first two hours, total sales reached $7.2 billion.
Some of the top performing brands included Nike, Adidas, Zara, the Gap and Uniqlo — that brand’s sales topped $4.7 million in less than three minutes from the start of the holiday at midnight on Friday in China’s timezone.
In 2015, Alibaba sold more than $14.3 billion worth of merchandise, a 60 percent increase from a year earlier. Alibaba takes a percentage of the sales and also generates revenue from advertising. About 100,000 merchants and brands take part.
The New York Stock Exchange-listed company has come under scrutiny from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on its accounting practices surrounding Singles Day operating data. It’s also been under continued scrutiny from retail associations and fashion brands that say the group does not do enough to remove counterfeit items from its platforms.
Over the past several years, Alibaba has taken Singles Day, a relatively obscure concept surrounding the notion that single people deserve a day to celebrate, well, being single, and turned it into arguably the world’s first holiday centered solely on consumerism. The event has become so big that other online retailers have had no choice but to take part, and, with 195 countries and 13,000 global brands participating this year, Alibaba has been ramping up efforts to engage shoppers and brands outside of Chinese borders.
Every year, it gets bigger.
The company is making a concerted effort to pair buying products online with entertainment, producing an annual Global Shopping Festival Countdown Gala. Pop star Katy Perry canceled at the last minute due to a family emergency, Alibaba said.
There were plenty of other celebrities for the pre-sale gala on Thursday evening. David and Victoria Beckham promoted product lines. Los Angeles Laker legend Kobe Bryant made an appearance. Actress Scarlett Johansson made a surprise showing alongside Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of the group who is a celebrity in his own right in China. The media spectacle was broadcast on television and on Youku.com, an online video site owned by the e-commerce group.
In 2015, the gala was in Beijing, and featured a number of local and international celebrities, including British actor Daniel Craig.
“Here in China, shopping is entertainment,” Joe Tsai, Alibaba’s vice chairman, said during a media briefing on Thursday. “Young people want to share the experience with their friends. They want to share [what they’re buying]. That’s an interesting phenomenon.”
Alibaba uses the shopping holiday to showcase the growing power of Chinese consumers — bolstering domestic consumption underpins Chinese government economic reforms aimed at fostering more stable growth and boosting the country’s GDP expansion that has been slowing in recent years.
On Thursday, executives also used the event to voice their concerns over antitrade rhetoric directed at China from president-elect Donald Trump. Daiwa Capital Markets economists predicted that, if implemented, Trump’s proposal to slap a 45 percent tax on Chinese goods could cause a 4.8 percent drop in GDP for China.
“The best solution for America is to engage with the rest of the world because we live in a global marketplace,” Tsai said. “We think the relationship between the U.S. and China is crucial to the well-being of everyone. If they disengage that will disappoint people who are looking to [the U.S.] for economic leadership.”
He added: “China is going to be and already is the source of consumer demand and capital for America. If you’re the American president, you must pay attention to that. Your job is to create jobs. If you don’t have engaged Chinese consumers and investors investing to create those jobs, you’ll be in trouble.”
A key theme of this year’s Singles Day is the engagement with Chinese consumers, particularly via new technologies bridging bricks-and-mortar retail with online shopping, or O20. Showcasing innovation is arguably one of the drivers to hold the gala in Shenzhen, a city that is known for entrepreneurship, has long been one of the country’s major tech hubs and also is the first region where China opened its doors to integration into global trade back in the late Seventies.
The city is also home to the headquarters of Tencent, one of Alibaba’s biggest rivals, that operates WeChat, a mobile chat application that is increasingly used for brand promotion and mobile shopping.
Alibaba is piloting a virtual reality platform called Buy+ where shoppers use special goggles to have a virtual shopping experience in retail stores globally. Participants included Macy’s and Target. In late October, Alibaba held a fashion show in Shanghai where consumers could pre-order items in real-time as they appeared on the catwalk. Viewers of the gala on Youku can also instantly order certain items worn by celebrities.
The e-tailer launched a game similar to Pokémon Go where users follow a virtual Alibaba cat mascot through shopping malls as part of an effort to drum up business between off-line and online retail environments.
During the early hours of Singles Day, Alibaba showcased the evolution of its big data use, illustrating how it can increasingly pinpoint the demographics and shopping habits of consumers down to a specific neighborhood — if not apartment complex.
“This is the future of retail,” Tsai said. “The future of retail is in China, not anywhere else. And it’s here today.”