'Double 11' party may not last for Alibaba

Workers sorting packages after the Singles' Day shopping festival at a delivery company in Hengyang in China's central Hunan province. At the stroke of midnight on Monday, e-commerce giant Alibaba said it had racked up a record US$30.8 billion (S$42.
Workers sorting packages after the Singles' Day shopping festival at a delivery company in Hengyang in China's central Hunan province. At the stroke of midnight on Monday, e-commerce giant Alibaba said it had racked up a record US$30.8 billion (S$42.6 billion) in Singles' Day sales.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SHANGHAI • 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 on Monday, Alibaba said it had racked up US$30.8 billion (S$42.6 billion) in sales the day before, as measured by its own home-grown metric, gross merchandise value. That handily topped last year's 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 also 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 enthused this year about celebrating manic consumerism.

  • US$30.8b Amount that Alibaba said it had chalked up in Singles' Day sales this year, as measured by its own home-grown metric, gross merchandise value.

    US$25.3b Alibaba's Singles' Day sales haul last year.

Ms Yang Sun, a 26-year-old from the northern city of Xi'an, said 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 Tsai, Alibaba's executive vice-chairman, told reporters on Sunday 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 fulfil 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 of their value since June.

Even so, outgoing Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma could hand over the reins with yet another feather in the cap for the online sales promotion he has championed.

He will hand the chairman's role to chief executive officer Daniel Zhang next year.

Concerns about the impact of trade tensions with the US on a slowing economy have contributed to a 16 per cent slump in Alibaba's share price this year.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2018, with the headline ''Double 11' party may not last for Alibaba'. Print Edition | Subscribe