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It's not delivery. It's the grocery store.

Dec 5, 2019

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Have something you want Kai to explain about the economy? Let us know!

Singles Day: China’s biggest shopping event

Jennifer Pak Nov 12, 2019
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A Singles Day advertisement from Alibaba inside a Shanghai subway station reads, "Fulfill your wish."
Jennifer Pak/Marketplace

Chinese consumers spent at least $68 billion on e-commerce platforms for the annual Nov. 11 Singles Day sale, the largest annual shopping event in China. The transaction volume surpasses online sales in the U.S. during Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

E-commerce giant Alibaba reports that people bought 268.4 billion yuan ($38.3 billion) worth of goods and services on its platforms during the 24-hour event.

Alibaba’s main rival, JD.com, says its Singles Day sales reached 204.4 billion yuan ($29.2 billion). This figure includes sales made over an 11-day period starting Nov. 1.

JD.com says that investment to develop logistics into more rural areas of China has paid off, despite slower economic growth in those regions.

“Lower-tier cities drove new customer growth during Singles Day, with the number of lower-tier cities users placing orders increasing 60% year-on-year,” read a JD.com news release.

In the 48-hour lead up to the Singles Day shopping festival, the Marketplace Shanghai bureau received lots of text messages with coupons and discounts.

“30,000 items selling for as low as 1.10 yuan ($0.16),” read a text message from internet giant NetEase’s e-commerce platform, Yeation.

Alibaba's Tmall display advertising the Singles Day or "Double 11th" sales event in front of an events arena in Shanghai. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Alibaba’s Tmall display advertising the Singles Day or “Double 11th” sales event in front of an events arena in Shanghai. It is the biggest sales event in China. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

Other messages conveyed a sense of urgency to shoppers.

“If you miss this deal, you’ll have to wait another year!” JD.com wrote in a text message.

These types of ads may have worked. By 4 p.m. on Nov. 11, Alibaba reported that sales on its platforms crossed the $30 billion mark.

That surpasses the $29 billion in online sales data tracking company Adobe Analytics predicts Americans will spend this year on Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

The biggest e-commerce platforms in China sold 314.3 billion yuan ($44.9 billion) on Singles Day in 2018, according to a Chinese big data company, Syntun.

E-commerce giant JD.com Singles Day ad promoting its pharmacy and health check services. E-commerce giants are branching out beyond just selling goods. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
E-commerce giant JD.com Singles Day ad promoting its pharmacy and health check services. E-commerce giants are branching out beyond just selling goods. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

Leading the pack, according to Syntun, are Alibaba’s e-commerce sites, which accounted for 68% of the online sales during Singles Day in 2018. Clothing, home appliances and decorations were the top-selling items.

JD.com came in at a distant second, accounting for 17% of sales. JD.com is typically strong in consumer electronics and home appliances.

Nov. 11 was chosen to be Singles Day because the date 11/11 looks like four bare sticks. Its origin is not clear, according to Chinese state-run media. A widely reported version is that some college students in eastern Nanjing city in the 1990s either wanted to beat loneliness or celebrate singlehood by dining with unattached friends and singing karaoke.

It became popular among students and white-collar workers, which then led restaurants, florists and other businesses to offer discounts on the day to boost consumption.

Then on Nov. 11, 2009, Alibaba joined in, leading other online sites to follow. These days, Nov. 11 is less of a celebration of single people and more about shopping promotions.

Alibaba even holds an annual gala. American singer Taylor Swift is headlining this year’s concert. E-commerce is still Alibaba’s core business.

“It has an ecosystem [so] if its e-commerce is good, its other businesses, like logistics and cloud computing, will also be boosted,” said e-commerce analyst Danny Law at Guotai Jun’an Securities in Hong Kong.

Although China’s government reported that its economy is growing at its slowest pace in nearly three decades, at 6% in the third quarter this year, online sales have been robust, reaching just over a trillion dollars from January to September of this year, up 16.8% from the same period in 2018, according to the Chinese ministry of commerce.

China Merchants Bank offers customers who tie its credit card to mobile payment apps a chance to win cash vouchers of up to 11,111 yuan ($1,600). It's not just retailers getting in on the sales event. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
China Merchants Bank offers customers who tie its credit card to mobile payment a chance to win cash vouchers of up to 11,111 yuan ($1,600). It’s not just retailers getting in on the sales. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

American firms selling to Chinese consumers may suffer, though, as tensions with the U.S. continues and create uncertainty for businesses.

A poll of some 2,000 people from research firm AlixPartners found that 78% of Chinese consumers say they’re less likely to buy American brands on Singles Day, out of national loyalty.

A sign on a Shanghai clothing shop with a less splashy sign advertising discounts for Singles Day. More offline shops are participating in what has widely been seen as an e-commerce event. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
A Shanghai clothing shop advertising discounts for Singles Day. More offline shops are participating in what has been seen as an e-commerce event. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

Consultancy firm RedTech Advisors recently concluded a survey of 60 big merchants operating on Alibaba’s platforms on their sales optimism over the next six months.

“On balance, they were still leaning slightly pessimistic,” said RedTech Advisors’ founder Michael Clendenin.

Alibaba is counting on shoppers like Wang Jiang, a mother of one in Shanghai.

Nearly two weeks before the sale, she showed Marketplace that she had 118 items worth 38,000 yuan ($5,400) in her shopping cart on Alibaba’s Taobao app, consisting mostly of clothing for herself and her child.

“Of course, I will not buy all of them,” she said. “I will choose what I like the most. But I plan to spend at least 10,000 yuan ($1,420).”

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

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