Singles’ Day: Big Chinese e-commerce platforms report strong sales during world’s largest shopping festival as pandemic moves more people online

Minghe Hu
·6-min read

Chinese consumers collectively spent 498 billion yuan (US$74 billion) during Singles’ Day on Alibaba’s online retail platforms, according to the latest figures from the e-commerce giant, wrapping up a record-breaking campaign for the world’s biggest shopping festival.

That tally – which measures Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) – topped last year’s sales of 268.4 billion yuan during the 24-hour campaign beginning November 11. Alibaba Group Holding is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

As the world’s largest shopping festival, Singles’ Day is known for its steep discounts on everything from daily necessities to luxury items and even flats.

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About 470 brands – including smartphone giants Apple, Huawei Technologies, Xiaomi Corp; sportswear vendors Nike and Adidas; and skincare specialists L’Oréal, Estée Lauder and Lancôme – each surpassed 100 million yuan in GMV on Alibaba’s platforms.

Alibaba’s Singles’ Day, 2020. Photo: Minghe Hu
Alibaba’s Singles’ Day, 2020. Photo: Minghe Hu

Meanwhile, Chinese retailer Suning.com reported that omnichannel GMV on its own e-commerce platform, Tmall shop and live-streaming sessions had surpassed 5 billion yuan 19 minutes after the clock struck midnight on November 11.

Total transaction volume on JD.com, the country’s second largest e-commerce services provider, surpassed 271 billion yuan, according to the company’s latest figures.

Consumers this year have shown interest in 5G mobile network technology. Zhao Kuo, director of marketing and sales for electronic devices at JD.com, revealed that sales of 5G smartphones on the platform soared eleven-fold during its campaign that started on November 1, compared with the same period a year earlier.

But the early start is not the only thing unique about the event this year. China has also seen more online spending because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has changed consumer behaviour.

“An anomaly named Covid-19 … has had such a profound impact on all aspects of a consumer’s life that the rules of the game have changed much faster than anticipated,” said Siraj Sirajuddeen, managing director of growth markets at Accenture. “These shifts are having a major impact on shopping behaviour. We’re seeing the digital ‘shelf’ becoming the primary shelf, if not the only shelf, in some Asia-Pacific markets.”

Value shoppers have continued to look online and now people seeking premium products have also shown a willingness to spend more on local e-commerce sites.

What you need to know about China’s Singles’ Day online shopping festival

“We see clearly that there are two groups of customers. One group is taking advantage of promotions, buying up necessary stocks for the future,” said Sean Shen, Greater China customer and strategy competence leader at EY. “A … different group of customers want high-quality products in the premium segment because of the travel ban this year, so they’re willing to spend more on the goods and products they used to buy overseas.”

Alibaba said its Singles’ Day campaign this year covers 2 million new products on its platforms, twice the number from last year.

While Singles’ Day started out as just a shopping festival full of steep discounts, it has now become known for both its consumerism and entertainment, thanks to the annual gala event staged by Alibaba.

The massive concert put on the day before Singles’ Day often includes international pop stars like Taylor Swift and Mariah Carey. Acts like Cirque du Soleil have also performed at the event in front of thousands, while millions more across China watch the live-streamed event online.

People arrive at Alibaba Group Holding’s annual 11.11 countdown gala celebration event in Hangzhou on November 10, ahead of the main shopping extravaganza that kicks off at midnight. Photo: Minghe Hu
People arrive at Alibaba Group Holding’s annual 11.11 countdown gala celebration event in Hangzhou on November 10, ahead of the main shopping extravaganza that kicks off at midnight. Photo: Minghe Hu

This year’s concert featured US pop star Katy Perry, who sang three songs in her first performance at Alibaba’s Singles’ Day event, which she did virtually because of the pandemic. The concert on the night of November 10 also included Chinese pop stars such as TFBoys’ Jackson Yee and famed pianist Lang Lang.

For the first time this year, Alibaba set up an early sales window that ran from November 1 to 3. The company said it was designed to help new brands and small businesses take part in the event. The main event on November 11 remained the same, starting as soon as the clock struck midnight.

Ahead of its official shopping windows, Alibaba had two presales windows this year, from October 21 to 31 and November 4 to 10. During this time, consumers could put down payments on products and finish their purchases during the actual sales windows.

Millions of shoppers are raising virtual cats for Singles’ Day deals

Transactions per second also peaked at 583,000 this year, according to Alibaba. By the time the main event kicked off on November 11, the company also had more than 500 million players of its Taobao mini game designed to keep shoppers returning to the app to take care of a virtual cat in exchange for deals.

Singles’ Day is most closely associated with Alibaba platforms like Taobao and Tmall, but many other e-commerce platforms have joined in since it started in 2009. This year, JD.com, Suning.com and Vipshop, as well as short video platforms Douyin and Kuaishou, have all taken part in the shopping festival.

Why selling stuff through live streams is booming in China

This year also marks the first Singles’ Day since live streaming e-commerce exploded in popularity because of the pandemic. It has become seen as a new way to experience products online before making a purchase.

“The [live streaming] market is still in its infancy … But it will be a trillion-dollar market, and the target we have for ourselves is to be the first to reach the trillion-dollar threshold,” said Yu Feng, head of Taobao Live, at a media event on Wednesday at Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou.

Over 30 live streaming channels featured on Taobao Live each generated more than RMB100 million in GMV, according to data from the e-commerce giant.

E-commerce has surged in China this year as the coronavirus pandemic kept shoppers indoors. The country’s online retail sales reached 5.15 trillion yuan in the first half of the year, up 7.3 per cent from the same period last year, according to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce.

Additional reporting by Jane Zhang.

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