Singles’ Day racks up $33b in sales in 16 hours

Alibaba sets new record for annual online event amid China-US tensions and tariff war

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Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba smashes the 2017 record for its Singles' Day sales event on Sunday, surpassing 168 billion yuan (S$33.3 billion) sales in under sixteen hours.
Live updates of sales figures being displayed on a large screen during Alibaba’s annual Singles’ Day online shopping event in Shanghai yesterday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SHANGHAI • Alibaba Group logged 168.3 billion yuan (S$33.3 billion) in sales in 16 hours of its annual Singles' Day extravaganza, setting a record as shoppers swarmed the ecommerce giant's online bazaars.

China's largest company, which used a concurrent televised entertainment spectacle featuring Cirque du Soleil and songstress Mariah Carey to further drum up business, reported that Xiaomi, Apple and Dyson products were the top three brands in early sales.

The annual retail celebration, originally dedicated to the nation's unattached, has become an important bellwether not just for the company, but also the country.

This year's Nov 11 gala offers a glimpse of consumer sentiment in China as US tensions and a tit-fortat tariff war depress stock markets and threaten to dampen the world's No. 2 economy.

Alibaba surpassed the 100 billion yuan mark less than two hours into Singles' Day, according to Alibaba's news website.

The challenge for billionaire cofounder Jack Ma and his lieutenant Daniel Zhang was to notch another record after a scorching decadelong run. With a cooling economy, saturated markets and competition from smaller platforms such as and Pinduoduo, Alibaba is seeking new growth engines.

Singles' Day was the brainchild of Mr Ma and Mr Zhang, who came up with the idea of the shopfest a decade ago. First popularised by college students, Nov 11 emerged as an antidote to the sentimentality of Valentine's Day. It has become so enormous that packaging waste - Alibaba expects one billion packages to get shipped this year - and potential damage to the environment remain lingering issues.

The chief executive, Mr Zhang, who takes over from a retiring Mr Ma as chairman next year, must prove he can carry on that legacy. His Hangzhou-based company also uses the occasion to test the limits of its cloud computing, delivery and payments units.

Still, there was some uncertainty this year, as the trade war and deflating asset values threaten to disrupt economic growth. Chinese online retail sales growth slowed to 24 per cent in the third quarter, down 12 percentage points from the previous three months, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

It has been three years since Mr Ma said he wanted to make Singles' Day a global phenomenon. International expansion will be a key plank of Mr Zhang's effort to keep breaking records.

Last year, the top three non-Chinese Singles' Day markets were Russia, Hong Kong and the US - in that order. Popular items purchased overseas included mobile phones, wool coats and knitted sweaters.

In the first hour of this year's Singles' Day, the top countries selling to China were Japan, the US and South Korea, and the most popular items purchased overseas were dresses, wool coats, pants and hoodies.

At the same time, Alibaba's efforts to push into the US are sputtering. It discarded a pledge to create a million jobs in the country, lost its top American deal-maker, and jettisoned plans for affiliate Ant Financial to acquire MoneyGram.

US President Donald Trump said in the middle of last month that he plans to withdraw the US from a 192-nation treaty that gives Chinese companies discounted shipping rates for small packages sent to American consumers, making it harder for Chinese merchants to push into the market.

South-east Asia will give the clearest indication of Alibaba's ability to go global. With Singapore-based Lazada now fully under Alibaba's wing, the region remains one of the company's relative bright spots, amid a backdrop of slowing growth in China and turmoil brought on by the escalating trade war.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2018, with the headline Singles’ Day racks up $33b in sales in 16 hours. Subscribe