Marketing TechnologyEcommerce & SalesAlibaba’s record-breaking Singles Day and its impact on global ecommerce

Alibaba's record-breaking Singles Day and its impact on global ecommerce

How did Singles Day, essentially a made-up holiday, become the world’s largest online shopping day? And how does it influence the rest of the world?

Last year, Cyber Monday generated $6.59 billion in sales, making it the largest ecommerce day in U.S. history. On Singles Day earlier this week, Alibaba hit that number in about 20 minutes.

The largest ecommerce day ever, Alibaba sold more than $30 billion worth of products across its entire marketplace, which includes Taobao and Tmall. Sales were up 27% year-over-year, a small growth by Singles Day standards.

Singles Day on Tmall

“When you think about it from a macro perspective, Alibaba stock is actually down because of trade wars,” says Raj Nijjer, VP of Marketing at commerce marketing cloud Yotpo. “They still have a huge number to hit and this wasn’t good enough, which blows my mind.”

Singles Day began at Nanjing University in 1993, when four friends decided that because November 11’s date is comprised of ones, it should be dedicated to celebrating themselves as single people. The event spread throughout city during the ‘90s. Alibaba turned it into an ecommerce event to entice more merchants to sell on Tmall, which was fairly new at the time.

“Chinese culture is very much like Indian culture in that there’s a lot of pressure to find someone and get married,” explains Nijjer. “This is almost like the antithesis of Valentine’s Day, where you say, ‘Today is my day!’ and splurge on yourself.”

As Singles Day has grown over the past decade, it’s expanded both off- and online. Alibaba competitor JD.com raked in $23 billion on Singles Day, also 27% over its 2017 sales.

Can Singles Day go global?

Though many household name brands—Apple, L’Oréal, Nike, Nestlé and Adidas among them—participated in Singles Day, the holiday hasn’t expanded much beyond China. Part of that could be attributed to how close it is to the holiday season. Christmas isn’t widely-celebrated in China the way it is in most of the world’s other major ecommerce markets like the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France and Japan. (Christianity isn’t widespread in Japan, though people celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday, often with KFC.)

But of course, Singles Day has influenced the global ecommerce market, most notably in the form of Amazon’s four-year-old Prime Day. However, Nijjer sees the two days as apples and oranges.

“Singles Day was a grassroots effort by Chinese millennials,” he says. “It’s pull versus push. Prime Day has no identity and is largely driven by Amazon’s PR machine.”

Amazon Prime Day

Still, Prime Day is undeniably huge. Amazon didn’t release figures, but the ecommerce behemoth did say Prime Day was its biggest day ever. Wedbush Securities Inc. analyst Michael Pachter estimated the day’s sales figures to be about $4.2 billion.

That number seems quaint compared with Singles Day, but China is more than four times the size of the U.S. Taking the country’s gargantuan population into consideration, Singles Day sales amounted to $22.20 per person; Prime Day, $12.92. Singles Day is bigger, just not as much bigger as it looks on the surface.

A more indirect influence

Nate Harris, Head of Marketing at influencer marketing platform CreatorIQ, doesn’t see Singles Day becoming a huge global phenomenon. As Nijjer pointed out, the holiday is unique to China’s culture. Plus, Alibaba’s dominance is mostly domestic. Last year, 89.5% of Alibaba’s sales were Chinese, while Amazon has a much larger global footprint.

Amazon global sales

Social media played a big role in helping Singles Day spread from Nanjing University throughout China. In that way, Harris sees an indirect influence on the rest of the world.

Shoppable social is a huge part of how ecommerce has disseminated in China,” he says. “It’s almost a digital-first economy when it comes to purchasing B2C goods.”

He sees a parallel with direct-to-consumer brands’ rise in popularity. Take Glossier, for example. The beauty brand began as a blog and social media has driven much of its growth. Glossier customers are also fiercely loyal; according to CEO Emily Weiss, 80% of them were referred by a friend.

Social media looks completely different in China, as most of the popular platforms are banned by the government. Instead of Facebook and Twitter, there’s a microblogging platform called Weibo. WeChat doesn’t even have an equivalent, as it serves countless purposes: messaging, paying bills, ordering food, shopping, reading news.

“Platforms like Weibo, QQ and Baidu used to be regarded as carbon copies of their Western counterparts, but there’s an interesting dynamic as it relates to shoppable social media and ecommerce,” says Harris. “We’ve seen the tides turn in a lot of ways, using Singles Day as kind of a North Star, as far as the influencer marketing and social brand advocacy more brands are rolling out globally.”

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