“Don’t go to bed early tonight. You will lose hundreds of yuan when you sleep,” Li Jiaqi warned ahead of his e-commerce livestream session on October 20.
His warning was still weeks away from Singles’ Day, the landmark shopping bonanza that takes place annually on November 11. However, shoppers and retailers were already in festive mood as Alibaba had this year launched a large presale event on the aforementioned evening, promising discounts even steeper than those on the day of the main event. That night Li and rival livestreamers such as Viya all worked around the clock, rattling off one tantalising deal after another on Alibaba’s Taobao Live platform.
And the tactic was a big success. Li’s eight-hour livestream attracted as many as 160 million viewers. Viya’s channel also had 149 million views. Together, the two sold more than Rmb7 billion ($1 billion) worth of merchandise while accepting Rmb1 billion in deposits.
Part of Alibaba’s strategy this year was not only to stretch ‘Double 11’ beyond being a one-day event, but to encourage shoppers to buy now and pay later. Consumers needed only to pay a small deposit for their favourite products during the presale period and then fork out the remainder later.
Early payment also guaranteed buyers that their goods would be delivered earlier, avoiding shipping delays that past Singles’ Days have created with the huge volumes of orders made over a frantic 24-hour period.
“This is the new game this year. Singles’ Day started the first round of presales on October 20. All the products sold during the events are considered ‘presale’ so consumers only needed to pay the deposit and settle the final payment between November 1 and 3. November 11 on the other hand is the second wave and also follows the same rule: deposit first and then the rest of the balance later. So all the transactions within those days are now included into Singles’ Day,” Huxiu explained.
Merchants were supportive of the new format. He Haolei, the e-commerce manager of duck egg manufacturer Yiliuxiang told the People’s Daily that the company participated in Singles’ Day in 2019 but the result was not satisfactory, leaving it with a lot of unsold inventory. This year the company was able to adjust its inventory based on the presale period. Deposits received from the new payment arrangement also helped the manufacturer’s overall cashflow.
Not only is Singles’ Day now longer than ever, the promotions and sales discounts – the fundamental reason for the frenetic shopping – are getting more complicated as well. Many shoppers were left confused and frustrated, however.
In addition to the traditional price reductions and virtual ‘red packets’ (essentially coupons), consumers could receive additional discounts by redeeming their Tmall points (which are calculated according to their previous purchases). They could also bundle their purchases across different stores for more savings.
“It used to take only elementary-level math skills to figure out the discounts on Taobao but in the last five years it looks as though Alibaba has hired Ge Jun [a professor famous for designing the mathematics paper for China’s college entrance exam] to be in charge of all the marketing planning,” one netizen joked.
Competition in this year’s Singles’ Day was more intense than ever. In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, e-commerce sales contributed almost 30% of China’s total retail sales as of the second quarter of this year, up from 21% in the same period a year earlier. This is showing no signs of slowing.
Capitalising on the trend, rival e-commerce giant JD.com announced that its presale campaign would start on October 21 and be extended into three different periods. After November 11, Alibaba’s e-commerce rival said there would be two more days of extended discounts.
“The biggest problem Alibaba is facing is not the consumer complaints but the competition, which includes JD, Douyin and Pinduoduo. So if you want to know why Double 11 is so long this year, it is because Alibaba needed to generate buzz and also get a head start over the competition,” one industry insider explained on a blog.
This year, Alibaba also added new categories to the Singles’ Day sale. For instance, shoppers could now buy cars and houses. Data from the presale on October 21-31 showed the number of visitors to the e-commerce giant’s online housing platform exceeded 70 million, although it is not immediately clear how many apartments have been sold on Singles’ Day through Alibaba.
Online education was another major category this year, thanks to the pandemic. In the first 10 minutes of presales, consumers frantically snapped up online classes at a discount. On average, shoppers spent over Rmb1,000 on the lessons.
More than five million merchants participated in this years’ shopping festival, attracting nearly 800 million customers worldwide to Alibaba’s shopping platforms.
The expanded festival boosted the total gross merchandise volume (GMV) on Alibaba’s platforms to Rmb498 billion ($74.1 billion) by the end of November 11. That was a record, Alibaba said on Thursday, but given the differing timeframes it is hard to make like-for-like comparisons with prior years.
To celebrate, Alibaba tapped pop icon Katy Perry who performed three songs – albeit virtually – at the televised entertainment gala that aired on the evening of November 10.
Still, some rivals urge consumers to be cautious, including NetEase Yanxuan, the e-commerce arm of the internet firm, which announced that it would not participate in this year’s Singles Day. In a manifesto, it claimed to be firmly against all the “complicated discount gimmicks” and “overconsumption”.
“An enchanting evening spent in a five-star hotel room cannot compare to the sound sleep that a natural latex pillow can give you every night,” preached Yanxuan, which specialises in affordable merchandise ranging from household appliances to foodstuffs.
Some consumers, too, are showing signs of shopping fatigue. One told the South China Morning Post that she spent almost Rmb12,000 on Singles’s Day last year, buying on Taobao a handbag from designer brand Bally and high-end SK-II cosmetics. But this year, she’d only spent about Rmb600 on unbranded bags and cosmetics on rival e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, which is better known for budget goods.
“The pandemic has really made me think about my previous obsession with big brands. Now I’m ‘revenge saving’,” the consumer told the SCMP, referencing her switch from ‘overconsuming’ to saving her cash for more difficult times.
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