SHENZHEN — Alibaba sold nearly $18 billion worth of products and services during this year’s annual Singles Day shopping festival — a figure that trounces last year’s record of more than $14 billion worth of transactions for the 24-hour spending binge. But that reflects overall slower year-on-year growth, raising questions about the strength of consumer demand in China against the backdrop of an economic slowdown here.
The Chinese e-commerce giant tallies GMV, or general merchandise value, a measure of the value of products sold via its online platforms, in local currency. This year’s final figure came in at 120.7 billion yuan, a 32 percent increase from last year’s 91.2 billion yuan, which reflected 60 percent year-on-year growth.
More than 80 percent of transactions were made via mobile phones, the company said. Around 100,000 merchants participated.
Rival JD.com did not release detailed GMV data, but said it was up 140 percent compared to last year’s holiday. Earlier on Nov. 11, JD reported it had surpassed its 2015 GMV at about the halfway mark of the festival. Similarly, Yoox Net-a-porter executives declined to release figures but said the group’s China site, Yoox.cn, achieved record-breaking sales. Mei.com, a Chinese luxury flash sales e-tailer, reported four times the sales from last year with the average basket at 1,600 yuan, or $260, a 15 percent jump from 2015.
Alibaba also surpassed last year’s transactions 12 hours in with GMV coming in at 92 billion yuan, or roughly $13 billion at current exchange. The company said at one point it was processing 175,000 orders a second — a world record.
Alibaba’s astronomical GMV figures generated from Singles Day have come under increasing scrutiny, with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission launching an investigation earlier this year as to how the company crunches its numbers. Alibaba decided to no longer include GMV in its quarterly reports to provide more transparency regarding revenue generation. The company earns a percentage from the sales made on its platforms, which include Taobao.com and Tmall.com, as well as commission from advertising.
Jack Ma, the company’s founder and executive chairman, said during a speech just before midnight local time that the group is moving away from the GMV metric as it does not reflect the scope of Alibaba’s operations.
“GMV will no longer be the most important indicator of our performance,” Ma said. “When we were a baby, it made sense to prioritize GMV, but today GMV should not be our main priority. It could even be misleading to the outside world.”
He added: “GMV does not represent our true identity. Overemphasizing it would make people think Alibaba is just about e-commerce. That is not true. We have a lot of other core competitiveness.”
Ma also addressed the thorny issue of counterfeit goods for sale on its platforms, pointing out that Alibaba pinpoints merchants selling such items and can even identify the factories where they are produced. Alibaba will shut down merchants selling fake products, but Ma said there’s only so much the company can do.
“A lot of factories are still producing [counterfeits],” he said. “They need to be shut down, but we are not law enforcement. Their business licenses need to be removed and they need to be closed, but it is not our job to do that.”
Over the last eight years, Alibaba has made Singles Day — a rather obscure holiday for singletons — into the world’s the largest shopping festival. Every year it gets bigger as more brands and e-commerce companies take part. It has also become a day when Alibaba and its rivals showcase how they are evolving in China’s relatively young online shopping industry as well as how they see the future unfolding.
This year, innovation took center stage.
Alibaba held its presale gala on the evening of Nov. 10 in Shenzhen, a city known for its high-tech industries near the border of Hong Kong. The new generation of Chinese consumers was born after 1990, and this group of consumers is unique in that they want to be entertained while they shop, executives said.
“The generation born after 1990 is becoming the main consumption force,” said Daniel Zhang, Alibaba Group chief executive officer. “They have vastly different lifestyles and preferences.”
The Nov. 10 gala featured appearances from retired Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend Kobe Bryant, the band One Republic, David and Victoria Beckham and Scarlett Johansson. Broadcast on local television and online, viewers could immediately purchase items worn by the celebrities as well as take part in interactive games.
Alibaba is piloting a program where consumers can shop in brick-and-mortar stores using virtual reality technology. Eight retailers — including Macy’s, Target and Costco — allowed customers to be virtually transported to these retailers’ stores in other locations throughout the world, even if the retailers currently have no brick-and-mortar presence in China.
“We believe at the end of the day that online and off-line retail should be fully integrated,” Zhang said. “This will be the new retail of the future.”
The digital giant also launched a mobile game similar to Pokemon Go aimed at bridging off-line and online shopping experiences. In the run-up to Singles Day, Alibaba held a live-streamed runway show in Shanghai where consumers could immediately purchase items viewed on the runway.
JD.com live-streamed a fashion show on the evening of Nov. 11 from its headquarters in Beijing. Consumers could order items from the show, which featured a collection from a Chinese designer. JD also upped its drone delivery network to more rural areas.
There were also political undertones. Alibaba executives stressed the number of American retailers benefiting from Chinese consumers’ insatiable appetite for U.S. products, underscoring concerns about the potential for restrictive trade policies that could be put in place under the forthcoming Trump administration.
“Look at how many products are being sold out of the U.S. to Chinese consumers today,” Michael Evans, Alibaba Group president, said, noting cross-border sales from American retailers ranked number one out of all participating countries for Singles Day. “Why do we want to take that opportunity away from U.S. brands, retailers and businesses?”
Executives also discussed Alibaba’s globalization strategy, emphasizing a goal for the group to become a gateway not only to Chinese consumers but consumers in other developing economies across Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The company is investing in e-commerce players in Southeast Asia and India — markets they say have emerging middle class consumers who also want high-quality products from overseas and have shopping habits similar to those of the Chinese.
“We believe the most important consumers of the future are the billions of people who live in this part of the world, who are the emerging middle class,” Evans said. “They’re interested in the same thing Chinese consumers are interested in — safe, well-produced, high-quality, affordable products will be in demand for a long time, not just in the next year or two years.”
Ma said he envisions the future of e-commerce as an Internet-based global economy, separate from those of nation-states and capable of creating unprecedented business opportunities. He said he sees technology as key as well as serving rural populations in China as a precursor for Alibaba having “boundless opportunities around the world.”
“We are building an economic entity,” he said. “In the next 10 to 20 years, there will be a virtual economy in the world, a brand new Internet economy. Our resources are invested into a globalized world.”