A ny analysis of the rise of e-commerce in China can’t ignore the contribution of Singles’ Day, the annual shopping bonanza. Much of the action that day comes courtesy of Chinese millennials, another crucial contributor to the sector.
But increasingly, these two drivers of sales are losing steam. Young people of all kinds – a coveted group because of their freer spending – are ever more likely to shun the biggest shopping festival of the year (which took place last week: Singles’ Day falls annually on November 11).
A quick look at social media gives a glimpse of how younger shoppers are going cold on the annual shopping bonanza.
“Don’t hoard. If you must, hoard money instead,” was the advice of one netizen.
“Whatever you buy, you will run the risk of not liking it later. But you will never have that problem with cash,” added another.
Last week’s Singles’ Day marked the thirteenth anniversary of the shopping festival since it was launched by online sales giant Alibaba in 2009. After a period of dizzying growth, the party is starting to lose some its allure, with some shoppers starting to think more about curbing their spending.
“Have we all been brainwashed by consumerism to think that we have to buy something on Singles’ Day and 618 [the mid-year shopping festival pioneered by Alibaba rival JD.com]. Why is that? Must we always give money to capitalists twice a year?” one netizen thundered.
That said, there are still millions of willing buyers on the day in question. This year Alibaba and JD.com both announced new records in gross merchandise value (GMV), reaching Rmb540.3 billion ($84.6 billion) and Rmb349.1 billion respectively, up from last year’s Rmb498.2 billion and Rmb271.5 billion. Yet Alibaba’s figure was up just 8.5% on last year, the slowest growth ever. For comparison, GMV in 2020 increased 85.6% from the prior year.
Securities Daily took note, interpreting some of the ‘slowdown’ in online shopping as an echo of President Xi Jinping’s call for ‘Common Prosperity’ (a mantra that, among other things, has emphasised fairer distribution of wealth and attacked tech tycoons and their companies – not least Jack Ma and Alibaba).
Indeed, the state-run newspaper criticised the e-commerce giants for focusing too heavily on the sales records, seeing it as incompatible with the new path for China’s economic development. “The ‘worship of turnover’ is not only unsustainable in terms of digital growth but is also inextricably linked to chaos,” Securities Daily warned.
Some of the smaller e-commerce firms picked up on the same message. NetEase Yanxuan was one of the first to opt out of this year’s Singles’ Day sales efforts, for instance. “Double 11 [another local name for the event, referencing the digits in the date, 11.11] was meant to be an avenue that led to big savings for consumers,” Liang Jun, its chief executive, told reporters. “But over time it has turned into an event full of traps that spreads consumerism and distorts the original intention.”
Alibaba, too, has tried to downplay Singles’ Day, making it much more low-key than previous years. It toned down the typical hype this year, claiming new priorities in encouraging “eco-friendly consumption” and “supporting vulnerable populations”.
It also did away with the usual glitz and glam celebrations. In the past stars such as Taylor Swift and Pharrell Williams have performed at the Singles’ Day Gala, which has been broadcast on the night before the shopping festival. This year Alibaba offered only a two-and-a-half minute clip from British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, best known in China for his role as Sherlock Holmes, or as Dr Strange in the Marvel franchise. (In an odd monologue Cumberbatch played the role of a superintendent at an apartment block, relaying information about a parcel delivery – it won’t be remembered it as one of his most memorable performances.)
Part of the reason for a waning enthusiasm for Singles’ Day is that it has lost some of its reputation as the best time of the year for bargain hunting. “If you look carefully, you will find there are many big promotions throughout the year. There’s the Women’s Day shopping festival in March; another ‘half-off’ event in May [5.5, where everything is 55% reduced]; 618 in June; and another in September,” one merchant complained to Blue Whale Media.
“Let’s not forget that Singles’ Day presales now start as early as mid-October,” he added. “And then there’s another Double 12 shopping holiday next month (on 12.12). If I were a shopper, why would I need to wait until November to shop?”
On Sina Weibo there were plenty of complaints about the increasingly complex calculations for discounts too (which mix subsidies earned from previous purchases and coupons from individual stores). Topics like “I was driven crazy by Double 11” and “I don’t understand the rules of Double 11” were already some of the most-read on Chinese social media in the run-up to the shopping festival. “All these discounts and coupons, so many that they make your head spin. And in the end, you find that you’ve only saved Rmb2.5,” one consumer fumed on weibo.
“Double 11 has stretched so long that the rules become increasingly complicated and the discounts are even more elusive and increasingly frustrating. For example, you buy a product that costs Rmb243 on Singles’ Day. You wake up the following morning and find that it now costs just Rmb190. In other instances, there is no difference between pre-sale and non-pre-sale prices,” another disgruntled shopper told ThePaper.cn.
The shifting landscape of Singles’ Day saw consumers reminisce about more straightforward times a decade ago. “In the beginning, the prices were really amazing and there weren’t so many rules to the game. You didn’t need to rack your brain or calculate Olympiad-level maths problems just to figure out the discounts. I hope that future Singles’ Days will have simpler rules and clearer prices to bring us real benefits,” another netizen lamented.
One of the highlights of this year’s event remained e-commerce livestreaming. According to data from Taobao Live, the livestreaming arm of Alibaba, as of October 26 (i.e. the presale period), over 165 livestreaming sessions had generated GMV of more than Rmb10 million per session.
Rather than relying on illustrious livestreamers like Li Jiaqi and Viya, many of the larger brands have started their own livestreaming channels to build their own followings. In fact, 90% of the sessions were staged by brand owners and nine of the brands made over Rmb100 million in turnover.
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