Chinese consumers snapped up everything from food to electronics and beauty products Wednesday as retailers slashed prices for the world's largest online shopping bonanza, closely watched this year for clues on post-pandemic consumer sentiment.
The marathon spending spree has for more than a decade seen China's army of shoppers shell out colossal amounts of cash that have dwarfed the incomes of many small nations. And this year will be no exception.
While "Singles' Day" – so-called for its annual 11.11 date – has long-been a 24-hour event, e-commerce giant Alibaba has expanded it to an 11-day promotion beginning Nov. 1.
The world's biggest sales event – eclipsing Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the United States – spans four main days this year, and so far has brought sellers 16 times as many orders by value than Amazon.com Inc.'s two-day global Prime Day last month.
Such is its size that its performance is widely considered indicative of China's post-virus economic recovery.
"Because of COVID-19, many Chinese cannot go overseas," Vice President Liu Bo told reporters, according to Reuters. "This actually stimulates online consumption."
So far, the performance is likely a relief for Alibaba Group Holding Ltd after losing about 10% of its market value last week when regulators scuppered the listing of fintech affiliate Ant Group.
Alibaba said orders on its e-commerce platforms during the shopping extravaganza had exceeded $56 billion by Wednesday morning, more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of Iceland, Lebanon and Georgia combined.
The firm began sales early this year to give lesser-known brands more exposure. It set primary discount days for Nov. 1 through Nov. 3 as well as the usual Nov. 11 and will calculate gross merchandise volume (GMV) over all 11 days.
Conceived in 2009 by Alibaba as an antidote to Valentine's Day, the event falls on the 11th day of the 11th month and was meant to be an occasion for individuals to treat themselves to something new.
But it has expanded to encompass much of China's entire retail sector, including traditional brick-and-mortar stores, which also offer "Singles' Day" promotions.
The event is usually a splashy, single-day affair with live performances and which last year clocked a record GMV of $38.4 billion. This year, Katy Perry appeared at Alibaba's gala, albeit via livestream.
As well as offering straightforward price cuts, the event sees shoppers across Alibaba's numerous platforms playing mobile games for deals, combining purchases across shops and placing orders in the sale's early hours to get the best offers.
As of 12:30 a.m. (4:30 p.m. GMT) on Nov. 11, GMV had surpassed 372.3 billion yuan ($56.3 billion) with orders peaking at a record 583,000 per second, Alibaba said. Over 2 million products were featured in the sale for the first time – double last year.
Over 340 firms, including Apple Inc, L'Oreal SA and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., have exceeded 100 million yuan in sales, with 13 brands recording GMV above 1 billion yuan, Alibaba said.
Japan's Fast Retailing Co Ltd. said its Uniqlo brand ranked top for womenswear and menswear on Alibaba marketplace Tmall.
Top categories of imported products by GMV as of 9 a.m. were food supplements, infant milk formula and beauty. Sun Jian, event head of logistics, told reporters Alibaba was sanitizing all parcels from abroad given the COVID-19 pandemic.
Analysts also expect this year to be a boon for luxury brands, as consumers accustomed to going overseas for high-end goods have been thwarted by coronavirus border closures.
A poll of Singles' Day spending by Sina Entertainment found just 4% of 191,000 respondents planned to splurge over 10,000 yuan, versus 43% who aimed to spend less than 1,000 yuan.
To encourage spending, livestreamers thronged pop-up film studios at a building near Alibaba's Hangzhou headquarters, touting the merits of goods on sale.
Luo Lima estimated she had been on camera promoting maternity products for 24 hours over the course of this year's sales period, versus six hours on Singles' Day two years ago.
"We stream continuously for six hours, with no break," she told Reuters. "We start by eating a full meal and getting in a good state of mind. We also prepare throat lozenges and vitamin drinks."
Alibaba rivals JD.com Inc and Pinduoduo Inc as well as firms such as Douyin – the Chinese version of Beijing ByteDance Technology Co. Ltd.'s TikTok – are also holding Singles' Day events.
JD.com, which started promotions on Nov. 1, said orders as of 2:26 p.m. had set a record of 243.1 billion yuan.
This year's shopping is being closely followed around the world as a guide to the state of China's crucial consumer sector, which is increasingly more important to the future of the world's biggest economy.
As the country emerges from the effects of the virus and tight lockdowns, the recovery in retail sales has lagged that seen in industrial sectors, but is gaining pace, analysts said.
"Singles' Day" originally focused on sales of certain items like beauty products and electronics, said Melanie Sanders, Asia-Pacific head of retail for consultancy Bain & Company.
But e-commerce in China has expanded to include just about anything a consumer might purchase, including groceries, as digitally savvy Chinese opt for the convenience of online shopping.
The pandemic, which has made many Chinese wary of crowds, is furthering this trend, she told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"We're expecting it to be another very, very strong year, another record," Sanders said. "Retail in China is largely getting back now to last year's levels."
The Economist Intelligence Unit said it expects China's retail sales recovery to firm in the last three months of the year – supported by the shopping festival.
"China's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic before other major economies will also support consumer confidence," it said.
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