Alibaba has another big Singles' Day but the party may not last

Alibaba logged US$30.8 billion (S$42.5 billion) in sales for its annual Singles’ Day extravaganza in 2018, setting a new record.
Alibaba logged US$30.8 billion (S$42.5 billion) in sales for its annual Singles’ Day extravaganza in 2018, setting a new record.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SHANGHAI (NYTIMES) - After 24 hours of frenzied buying and selling, and weeks of advertising and promotions before it, the Alibaba Group announced that its sales hit another titanic high on Singles' Day, the Nov 11 shopping festival that the Chinese e-commerce behemoth cooked up a decade ago.

This time, the party was held with icebergs in sight from the deck.

At the stroke of midnight Monday, Alibaba said it had racked up US$30.8 billion (S$42.5 billion) in sales the day before, as measured by its own homegrown metric - gross merchandise value. That handily topped 2017's big number, US$25.3 billion.

But economic growth is slowing, and the country's hundreds of millions of middle-class shoppers seem to be holding on more tightly to their pocketbooks. Tech companies are antsy about the government's more interventionist attitude towards big business. The tariff fight with the United States is casting a pall not simply over trade, but over China's future. This month, Alibaba cut its sales forecast for the year ending in March by around 5 per cent, citing the wobbly economy and the trade war.

Meanwhile, some young Chinese shoppers seem less enthusiastic this year about celebrating manic consumerism.

Ms Yang Sun, a 26-year-old from the northern city of Xi'an, said that the Singles' Day discounts were no longer good enough to persuade her to wait all year to buy the things she wanted.

Asked about the current mood among Chinese consumers, Mr Joseph C. Tsai, Alibaba's executive vice-chairman, told reporters on Sunday (Nov 11) that Alibaba should be understood in the context of the epochal rise of China's middle class.

 
 

"That trend is not going to stop, trade war or no trade war," he said. "Any kind of short-term economic effects, we believe, will be cyclical."

In its relentless ambition, Alibaba may be Amazon's only global equal. Both companies want to fulfill their customers' every desire and need.

The business case for all this empire-building, Alibaba says, is that the company's lakes of commercial data give it a leg up in anything that requires understanding customers or merchants.

But Wall Street is still waiting for results, and has grown sceptical in the meantime of the costs of expanding into new areas. Alibaba's shares have lost nearly one-third their value since June 2018.