Editor's note: This article is one of several in our complete 11.11 Debrief
Western brands have always thought of Boxing Day in the UK and today's 'Black Friday' in the US as the watershed moments for digital sales, but Single’s Day in China obliterates both of them. It marks how organised retail can create shopping events which act as a flashpoint for e-commerce sales.
With Cyber Monday in the US and Boxing Day in Western Europe on the horizon, there is much musing on how 2014 will net out for global e-commerce. While important, the biggest online shopping day in the world just ended, and it was bigger than anyone had imagined. Single’s Day may not be well known to Western audiences, but is a juggernaut in China. As final numbers still trickle in, Alibaba reports that this year’s Single’s Day sales were a mind-bending US$9.3 billion, or a 63 per cent increase over last year. For comparison, Cyber Monday spend in the US last year clocked in at $1.35 billion according to comScore. Alibaba tweeted that it hit its first billion in 17 minutes. Single’s Day this year didn’t just break sales records—it annihilated them.
Single’s Day is November 11, a day when young single people give each other gifts and celebrate singledom, hoping to meet a special someone at the celebrations that happen across China. Alibaba, which owns Taobao and Tmall, is often credited with giving Single’s Day its present shape.
With projected 2014 sales of $420 billion this year, Alibaba is one of the world’s largest retailers and is only just hitting its stride. Following a bombastic IPO earlier this year, its sights are set squarely on the West. Tmall particularly has been setting up partnerships with global brands to manage logistics and sales from outside of China and use Tmall as largely a front-end. Costco Wholesale and Tesla Motors are the two most prominent examples of such. With Costco Wholesale setting up store front on Tmall, Chinese consumers can now buy brands such as Nature Made, Kirkland and Cetaphil directly instead of going through a procurement service.
Breaking away from its direct sales model, Tesla brought its Model S to the Tmall platform on October 20 to prepare for the Single’s Day sales. However, by November 10, one day before Single’s Day, all the Tesla Model S cars had already been sold out.
It’s not all rosy for Alibaba. The company is being aggressively challenged on its home turf by foreign entrants. Amazon launched Z.cn on Single’s Day this year to let Chinese buy American products from brands such as Christian Dior and Gillette from the US, with access to American reviews and prices along with three- to 10-day delivery. This instantly doubles the importance of Amazon to brands and makes it the one platform to talk to consumers in the two biggest e-commerce markets.
This year, Single’s Day also became truly mobile-first, with 42.6 per cent of sales via mobile. Brands must grasp how thoroughly mobile has reinvented the way we shop. M-commerce is as mainstream as any other form of shopping, especially in a country with 90 per cent mobile penetration. In a country as vast as China, it also allows consumers in the more remote regions to shop without having to rely on expensive wired connections.
Mobile shopping is also inevitably social. JD.com, China’s largest personal-electronics e-tailer, has leveraged its partnership with Tencent to make the purchase experience run smoothly within WeChat and QQ, which resulted in astronomical conversions via mobile.
Single’s Day is also the epitome of how millennials are shaping global e-commerce trends. From inception, Single’s Day has been about youth and young people, and millennials in particular are driving the shape of e-commerce to come. There are 485 million of them, and in APAC they are particularly digitally savvy, with 69 per cent of them having made an online purchase according to GWI. Brands have to understand how to millennials are just wired differently. They will not turn into the boomers if you give them enough time.
The clear winners during this one-day sale are predominantly Chinese brands. They have significant local market advantages on logistics and cultural awareness, but are also willing to engage in ruthless price wars. According to Tmall, all top 10 brands by sales this year were Chinese, with mobile manufacturer Xiaomi leading the way. A foreign brand like Samsung can avoid cutting into its margins by having consistent content to build a relationship with consumers in order to command a premium during Single’s Day, when purse strings are loosened.
Single’s Day has implications far beyond China. We will see local event-based online shopping days emerge in all major markets—perhaps around Diwali in India or New Year’s Day in Turkey. Brands need to prepare for these tentpole events and develop strategies for how they can use these massive spikes to drive ongoing brand engagement.
Brands also need to have digital infrastructure that allows them to deliver on this—Flipkart in India organised a Big Billion Sale Day, but its servers promptly crashed, leaving it with egg on its face. The success that Alibaba has had in China is too massive for retailers in other countries to ignore. Brands need to be constantly listening to cultural shifts in the ways people buy, because e-commerce enables these changes to happen very quickly.
Mudit Jaju is digital and data partner, e-commerce practice lead at MEC; Cathy Li is digital strategy director for EMEA at MEC.