HANGZHOU, China — Singles’ Day is now a global phenomenon — and blew Cyber Monday out of the water.
This story first appeared in the November 12, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which created the Nov. 11 shopping event, clocked in a record-breaking $9.3 billion in sales for the day on Tuesday, a figure that is nearly double the sales made on the company’s e-tailing platforms during the 2013 holiday. It also dwarfs by far Cyber Monday in the U.S., which in 2013 had sales of $1.74 billion.
“This year, globalization is our strategy,” Alibaba’s executive chairman and founder Jack Ma said during a massive media event late Tuesday night at sprawling company offices in Hangzhou, a city located two hours outside of Shanghai. “Everything is being prepared for the future. In four years, for our 10th anniversary [of Singles’ Day], the internationalization will become much smoother.”
Ma, a godlike figure in China, unexpectedly showed up shortly before midnight, which marked the end of the shopping event, famous for deep discounts on goods ranging from clothing and cosmetics to cars and electronics. Wearing a hunter green sweater and black pants with more than a dozen security personnel accompanying him, Ma stood in front of a giant screen projecting real-time sales figures.
“This is only the beginning,” he said.
Spreading Singles’ Day around the world this year started primarily with marketing campaigns in a number of countries, including Brazil and Russia where Alibaba partnered with third-party payment platforms to advertise the event. Overseas buyers could take advantage of discounts from Chinese businesses via AliExpress, a global consumer marketplace. Alibaba inked deals between China’s postal service and postal services in Brazil, Russia and Singapore to help expedite customs for international shipping.
Ma, as well as other executives who spoke, did not outline a precise strategy for expanding Singles’ Day beyond Chinese borders other than saying this year served as an experiment for how exactly to move forward. Outside, an LCD screen played videos of non-Chinese dancers singing a Singles’ Day jingle in countries ranging from Australia to the Netherlands.
The internationalization strategy is not only for consumers abroad. Alibaba is also trying to make it easier for foreign brands to take part. Already, tmall.com is home to more than 100,000 brands. The company now has Tmall Global, a platform that enables retailers without Chinese business licenses to sell directly to mainland shoppers. Last month, Costco Wholesale Corp. unveiled the opening of its online store on Tmall Global. A number of retailers joined Singles’ Day this year for the first time on tmall.com, including Kenneth Cole, American Eagle Outfitters and Calvin Klein.
Joe Tsai, Alibaba’s executive vice chairman, told journalists earlier on Tuesday that while the company sees America’s e-commerce market as “interesting in the long-run,” it is more focused on enabling American businesses to gain more access to Chinese shoppers. “Today our focus is on cross-border activities,” he said. “Where we are helping small U.S. businesses and merchants and even large businesses, like Costco, have access to Chinese consumers.”
Alibaba did not release sales figures from the 217 countries and regions where consumers were able to take advantage of Singles’ Day sales. The top three areas from where the most orders were placed included Hong Kong, Russia and the United States.
Yet it did release a lengthy list of impressive figures from China. By midday, sales had already trumped last year’s figures for the full holiday. In 2013, total sales reached $5.75 billion.
Nearly 280 million logistics orders were generated. Total gross merchandise volume via Alipay, its domestic online payment solution, exceeded desktop online sales from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday in 2013 by $4.1 billion, or 77 percent. Transactions made via mobile phones represented 42.6 percent of total sales from the holiday, indicating the rise of mobile commerce in China.
But Alibaba isn’t the only e-commerce company pushing Singles’ Day. Mozes Hoch, chief executive officer of Ashford, said that the event was significant for the American-based luxury timepiece and jewelry site. A combination of translating its e-commerce site at ashford.com into Mandarin and starting to use Alipay for payments in China has helped business in the region balloon.
“I always felt that to service the consumer you have to be local,” Hoch said. To date, he’s hired about 20 people in China, including a general manager, social media and marketing positions and a team that handles logistics.
Sales for Singles’ Day were up 200 percent from last year, according to Hoch, who added that conversion this month through Alipay was up over 100 percent year over year. The translated site has seen 605 percent growth month to date, and for the first time, the site saw more traffic coming from China than it did the United States. Hoch projects sales of nearly $100 million for 2014, with about 30 percent of this coming from China, the company’s fastest growing market.
Gilt signed on to use the payment portion of the Alipay ePass product last month, and like Ashford, China is one of the company’s biggest markets.
Marshall Porter, senior vice president of Gilt’s international business, said that revenue year over year for Single’s Day was up abut 1,150 percent. He credited this to a translated site, as well as a slew of new shipping methods offered that allowed for faster, cheaper and more direct shipping (and returns).
“We broke every record that we’ve had for the Chinese market,” Porter said. “Improving the customer experience has affected growth — and when you tack on Singles’ Day and the increased interest from international shoppers and crossborder e-commerce, it’s a terrific growth story.”
Shoprunner, which is in the process of rolling out several of its retail partners in China, is actively engaged from the sidelines this year. According to Megan Hanley, head of marketing, the plan is to understand the dynamics of the Chinese market and consumer and then prep retailers accordingly. For example, even though U.S. e-commerce sites see high conversion rates from e-mail marketing — it just doesn’t work in China, where Hanley said building a social presence and mobile communications strategy are key.
Hanley said she wants to apply learnings from Singles’ Day this year leading up to Nov. 11 in 2015. Early data said that over 40 percent of transactions from the day took place on a mobile device – which means that a lot of planning must go into enhancing the mobile experience, for starters.
“The things we see with Singles’ Day that are delivering the most volume and impact are significant promotions getting out in advance of the day,” Hanley said, adding that the challenge will be taking that shopper from a day of promotional engagement and transforming them into a loyal customer with a high lifetime value.
The level of promotions on the day was a key issue, raising the question of whether all the hubbub turned into profits as well as sales. Reuters reported that some merchants participating in Singles’ Day complained of pressure from Alibaba’s Tmall to boost sales figures via heavy discounts and delayed recognition of earlier sales. Merchants are not obligated to take part in the festival, but if they do, the only discount option is 50 percent or more, Reuters reported, adding that Tmall merchants say that if products are not priced lower than in their stores on competing e-commerce platforms, they are pushed lower down on the sales page, limiting potential access to hundreds of millions of consumers.
Alibaba declined to comment “on competitor’s activities,” Reuters reported.
The e-commerce giant begins pre-sale activities as early as Oct. 15, when retailers and merchants advertise products at their discounted Singles’ Day price. Tmall allows customers to place a deposit for the order but only allows vendors to process payments and ship products on Nov. 11.
Ma said the company is not trying to artificially create eye-popping sales figures to impress Wall Street investors. Which was good in one sense, since Alibaba’s stock dropped 3.9 percent Tuesday to close at $114.54 on the New York Stock Exchange.
“We do not need to have any stories to elevate our stock price,” he said. “A good business needs to have a solid foundation instead of creating stories. I am very nervous right now because everyone is saying Alibaba is not good in this or that, but I think Alibaba is better than people’s expectations. We are still young. The industry is not that old. There are high expectations, and we feel a lot of pressure.”
He added: “I am sure on this year’s Singles’ Day, Tmall and Taobao are not trying to attract consumers with only cheap prices. They are trying to attract consumers with new products and services. If we only win with cheap prices, this will not be sustainable.”