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How China's Singles’ Day Reflects the Future of E-Commerce

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Since officially adopting the cause in 2009, Alibaba has continued to grow awareness for Singles’ Day, a consumerist holiday meant for treating oneself. Each year, the company encourages more Chinese shoppers to take part in this cultural phenomenon by continuing to innovate in the retail space and by catering to customer demand.

In 2015, total spending on Singles’ Day topped US$14.3 billion at Alibaba alone, roughly seven times that of the most comparable US holiday, Cyber Monday. Alibaba set new records for the holiday, capitalizing on its 46% share of the Chinese online market, worth US$293 billion in 2015. This Singles’ Day, Alibaba continued to exhibit the forward looking leadership needed to maintain such a large share by building new online categories, working with multinational brands, and adopting the latest in technological practices.

Product Focus Shifts to Apparel & Multinational Brands

Buying online is hardly new, but for many it is used to buy particular things. Apparel and footwear, like consumer electronics and media products before it, is the next category to hit the mainstream. In China, the category already accounts for 21% of all internet sales, up from just 12% in 2010. Alibaba itself controls over three quarters of internet apparel sales as of 2015, thanks to the good will it has built up over the years at it has strengthened the online apparel category. According to Clavis Insight, the average apparel item featured on Tmall has over 9,000 reviews. With better selection, better pricing, and better return policies than years prior, the online shopping experience for apparel is about to reach its full potential. Singles’ Day is a microcosm of this, with apparel’s share of Tmall’s featured promotions reaching 43% as reported by Clavis.

The growing consumer class in China isn’t just wealthier than before, but is increasingly global. In apparel, international brands like Uniqlo, Gap, and Jack & Jones were prominently featured and made up the majority of promotions. The appeal of established brands is not unique to China, and Alibaba has put in extra effort to make Tmall the number one destination for international brands, which are known for their status and quality. Not only does this give Chinese shoppers access to much desired brands, but it also gives those brands access to 350 million active customers, in a venue where controlling the presentation and integrity of the product is much easier. While Chinese brands still dominated the Tmall Singles’ Day page this year, Apple managed to crack the top five according to Clavis. As barriers to global commerce continue to come down, the demand for international brands will only increase.

Singles Day TMall

The UK’s Sainsbury’s Tmall Shop courtesy of Clavis Insights

Technology enables shoppers to pick how they shop

Alongside insight into what people want to buy, Singles’ Day has given the world a glimpse at how people will want to shop. Mobile devices are increasingly favoured, with a reported 68% of total Singles’ Day sales originating from mobile devices. Alibaba also fully embraced an omnichannel strategy. With Alibaba distributing different deals across different devices, they have encouraged devoted savings seekers to keep separate shopping carts on their desktops and mobile phones. Alibaba is grooming a generation of mobile-first shoppers, a move which will payoff greatly when the entire world is addicted to their mobile devices.

Loyalty is often an underrated component of mobile shopping. With limited screen space and a number of users committing the majority of their time spent on these devices to just a handful of apps, it is important for retailers to be the number one shopping app and maintain that valuable real estate. Alibaba made sure to update deals every ten minutes on mobile to maintain the valuable screen real estate, compared to only hourly updates on the desktop site.

mobile and desktop screenshots Singles Day

Mobile vs desktop screenshots courtesy of Clavis Insights

In addition to a continued focus on mobile, the new boundary-pushing initiative in 2015 was teaming up with brick and mortar stores for Singles’ Day. With over 1,000 retail brands across 180,000 stores, Alibaba used its scale to bring an onmichannel experience to its shoppers across China. Shoppers were able to walk into participating stores and obtain the same prices they saw online thanks to collaborative price matching which allowed Alibaba to increase its already huge scale. Tmall also offered free services and discounts at physical retail shops with proof of corresponding online purchases at their Tmall stores, helping to make the omnichannel experience as seamless as possible by flowing both ways.

11/11 may only be one day, but the trends are here to stay

As Alibaba pushes the envelope in China, Singles’ Day continues to become bigger and a more globally recognized phenomenon. People may be watching because of the sheer size and dynamism of the Chinese market, but they should really be watching because of the way Alibaba is innovating in the retail space. China is a unique market, but in a world that gets flatter every day, there are lessons to be learned by all given China’s rapid rise, sheer size, and forward looking culture.

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