What slowdown? Chinese spend big in 'Singles' Day' shopping spree

Dan Martin
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The "Singles' Day" even was kicked off with a show by US superstar Taylor Swift

Chinese consumers closed in on a new spending record Monday during the annual "Singles' Day" frenzy, the world's biggest 24-hour shopping event, which kicked off this year with a glitzy show by US megastar Taylor Swift.

E-commerce leader Alibaba said that within the first 12 hours, nearly 192 billion yuan ($27.4 billion) had been spent -- apparently on pace to shatter last year's full 24-hour record of $30.7 billion.

China's economy is in the midst of an extended slowdown, exacerbated by the trade war with the United States, and the Singles' Day fire sale is viewed as a snapshot of consumer sentiment in the world's second-biggest economy.

There was little hint of Chinese consumer belt-tightening, as $1 billion was spent on Alibaba platforms in just the first 68 seconds.

Total gross merchandise volume settled through its payments platform Alipay hit 100 billion yuan within just 64 minutes -- 43 minutes ahead of last year's pace, the company said.

The promotion, now in its 11th year, kicked off at midnight with Chinese bargain-hunters snapping up everything from electronics to clothing and household goods via Alibaba and rival platforms.

As it counted down to midnight, Alibaba led up to the event with a gala show in Shanghai headlined this year by Grammy-winner Swift, whose soul-bearing love songs are hugely popular with young Chinese.

Singles' Day, also called "11.11" for the November 11 date, was originally set as an unofficial day for China's unmarried millions.

But Alibaba, based in the eastern city of Hangzhou, latched on to it a decade ago as a shopping promotion akin to the late-November US "Black Friday" retail crush, which "Singles' Day" now exceeds in sales.

Other Chinese online platforms and myriad retailers have tapped in as well.

Alibaba competitor JD.com, which holds an 11-day promotion ending at midnight on November 11, said total sales so far had reached $23.7 billion by Monday morning, with hours to go, surpassing the $22.4 billion reached for the entire 11-day stretch last year.

Despite sobering economic data over the past year, China retail sales have remained a relatively bright spot, facilitated by the Chinese consumer's embrace of e-commerce and one-click smartphone payments.

China also is transitioning to an economic model increasingly driven by domestic consumption and away from a past over-reliance on manufacturing.

- 'More diverse and younger' -

"Over the years, we've seen consumers become more diverse and younger," Alibaba Chairman Daniel Zhang said in comments released by the company, describing the continued robust Singles' Day performance.

China e-commerce sales also have expanded thanks to the growing diversity of products available to shoppers, and as consumers increasingly seek better-quality, higher-priced goods, analysts say.

"Consumption has already become an important portion of the economy. Digitalisation has facilitated this trend as it makes consumption more convenient and efficient than ever before," Raymond Ma, portfolio manager with Fidelity Investments, said in a research note.

Nevertheless, although Alibaba has hit new Singles' Day records annually, the pace of growth is slowing.

US-listed Alibaba earlier this month said the company's sales revenue in the most recent quarter, ending on September 30, had slowed to 40 percent compared to 54 percent in the same quarter last year.

This year's Singles' Day is Alibaba's first without co-founder Jack Ma, who stepped aside as chairman in September, 20 years after the former English teacher founded the company.

Alibaba today has more than half the domestic e-commerce market and is among the world's most valuable companies.

The firm is hoping to raise up to $15 billion in a Hong Kong IPO, a report said last week, which would be the city's biggest listing for nine years.

Environmentalists, however, accuse Alibaba and other e-tailers of fuelling a culture of excessive consumption and adding to a growing national garbage crisis by producing mountains of discarded packaging.