Shades of grey

Why this year’s Singles’ Day has targeted the ‘silver’ pensioner economy


Zhao Lusi: the actress popped up on Chando’s skincare livestream

Since his return to Taobao Live in late September, China’s biggest livestreaming personality Li Jiaqi has been making up for lost time. The e-commerce host, who disappeared for three months after having offended the country’s censors, has been working hard every night since October 24, the first day of Alibaba’s Singles’ Day presales.

In previous Singles’ Days, Li and his rival Viya were the two biggest headliners for the annual shopping bonanza. But Viya was nowhere to be found this year. She has been MIA since she got fined for tax evasion last December, leaving Li the solo ‘star’ act on Taobao Live, Alibaba’s livestreaming platform.

Mind you, if the first day of this year’s presale is anything to go by, Li’s popularity seems to have only gone from strength to strength: the 30 year-old host reportedly set a new record of Rmb21.5 billion ($3.2 billion) in gross merchandise value (GMV). Even though his management company subsequently denied the figure, most industry observers reckoned that the real number couldn’t have been too far off.

Movie stars and celebrities have been less in evidence during this year’s extravaganza than in the past. It was notable, for instance, when actress Zhao Lusi popped up on the livestream of the skincare brand Chando (Zhao found fame two years ago when she starred in a breakout drama made by Tencent Video about a matriarchal society in a fictional ancient city called Huayan).

Most analysts believe this Singles’ Day, which takes place on November 11 every year, will be even more muted than previous years. Overshadowed by China’s economic slowdown and zero-Covid policy, consumer sentiment is at a low. According to a survey conducted by consulting firm Bain & Company, 34% of the consumers polled said they expected to spend less on Singles’ Day this year, a big enthusiasm slump from last year (when only 9% said they would buy less).

“It is much higher than everything we have seen in the past, so a lack of confidence is very obvious,” says Kelly Liu, head of China retailing at Bain. Already, a lot of young consumers have expressed a plan to stay on the sidelines. “I bought some facial masks and cat litter on a livestream the first night of the Singles’ Day presale and I haven’t opened the Taobao app since,” one post-90s consumer told Ran Chi Yuan, a social media commentator.

Most consumers admitted that they are more cautious with their money, only looking for the best bargains. One shopper says prior to Singles Day’, she’d joined many discussion groups that share tips on how to get the best deals (her research found that when it comes to daily consumer goods, Tmall offers the best bargains).

But as millennials become increasingly cautious about their spending, e-commerce platforms are hoping that older shoppers could help lift the overall shopping sentiment. While they were often overlooked, Chinese e-commerce firms have gone out of their way to court ‘greyer’ shoppers.

On the eve of the presale, Taobao and Tmall announced an app upgrade to include the ‘geriatric version’, which means larger text size, a more streamlined user interface and the use of voice assistants (many pensioners complain that typing on a small screen is hard). This year, Alibaba also moved the start of the presale to the earlier hour of 8pm so senior shoppers didn’t have to sacrifice their sleep for online shopping.

One 75 year-old shopper revealed that she’s memorised Li’s broadcasting schedule for Singles’ Day itself – which after all the lengthy presales happens today – noting when he is going to advertise household appliances (she’s already written down the stuff she wants: namely dishwasher, air-fryer and a temperature-controlled shower head).

The pensioner expects that the discounts this Singles’ Day look set to be even deeper than previous years. “A double-door refrigerator is on sale for Rmb1,899 ($262.74), which was Rmb200 lower than last year’s Singles’ Day,” she observed.

“Double 11 [a nickname for the event] is a great time to stock up household items, such as paper towels and laundry detergent,” another older shopper added. “Not only is the price much cheaper than buying directly from supermarkets, but the products can also be delivered straight to my door, saving me money and effort.”

Some have even been staying up late for livestreamers’ best presale deals. Take the 60 year-old Yuan Yun. Even though she usually sleeps at 10 in the evening, she stayed up till midnight watching an e-commerce livestream so she could be one of the 1,000 shoppers to get their hands on a low-end refrigerator that cost just Rmb999. When she was done, she then quickly logged onto another livestream until 1am, during which she spent another Rmb1,300.

One retired consumer surnamed Zhang told Ran Chi Yuan that she enjoys e-commerce livestreaming because the hosts usually demonstrate how to use the product, which makes her feel more confident about the quality. This year, she has allocated Rmb50,000 for Singles’ Day shopping, mainly on appliances to upgrade her house.

A recent survey reveals that as of December 2021, over 43% of those over 60 years-old are regular internet users, a population that reached 119 million. According to e-commerce giant JD.com, the transaction volume of older shoppers on the platform went up three times between 2018 and 2022, which suggests that the demographic has become too big to ignore.

To that end, a ‘new’ generation of livestreamers have cropped up on short video platforms like Douyin and Kuaishou. For instance, there’s ‘Grandma Tian’, ‘Grandma-Wang-Only-Wears-Heels’ and ‘Grandma Qinba’. Amongst the older male livestreamers, ‘The 64-year-old Uncle Zhao Xueliang’ has done well broadcasting on Douyin.

Grandma Wang, who has more than 15 million followers on Douyin, sold over Rmb5.4 million in GMV in a single livestream session. Her fellow ‘grandma’ livestreamer Tian, who has 33.4 million followers on the same short video platform achieved Rmb1.5 million in GMV on her livestreaming debut.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.