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4 Takeaways From Singles Day 2018

This article is part of our November 2018 series about the state of retail. It has been updated. Click here for more.

There’s little doubt that Singles Day, started in the 1990s by college students as the anti-Valentine’s Day, has become a retail phenomenon. That comes courtesy of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which a decade ago turned the day into a huge shopping event. It’s now so big that the annual Nov. 11 event eclipses Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Amazon Prime Day in the United States.

Singles Day 2018 was the biggest one ever, with Alibaba processing $A42 billion in sales in a 24-hour period (US $30.3 billion); sales growth was 27% over the previous season.

We take a look at how Singles Day 2018 stacked up, and the top four takeaways for marketers from this year’s retail frenzy.

It’s Not Just About China Anymore 
Southeast Asia is also getting into the Singles Day spirit, with gala events being held to promote the holiday in Thailand and other countries. In the lead up to the event, China’s largest retailer, JD.com, rolled out a 14-day campaign, titled “11.11 Crazy Hot Sale,” targeting Thai shoppers. The campaign used a mobile app to build anticipation by offering shoppers up to 90% discount on prices across JD.com, discounts to restaurants owned by Thailand’s Central Group retail conglomerate, and an in-app game where users accumulated points redeemable for discounts on purchases. As if there wasn’t enough to drive anticipation, JD.com also sought the contribution of popular Thai heart-throb Ter Chantwist, who became the face of the campaign. 

Elsewhere in APAC, Indonesian sellers capitalised on the interest among Chinese shoppers for locally produced food, including shrimp crackers, instant noodles, and edible birds’ nests, which are believed to have medicinal benefits. In Australia, several national and international retailers got on board to promote the day locally, including surf-wear e-commerce brand Surf Stitch and international clothing brand Uniqlo, which used social media advertising, including Facebook and Instagram, to promote its sales to Australians.

From a spending perspective, even the United States participated in Singles’ Day shopping—to the tune of $1.82 billion online, according to Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights.

It’s Not Just About Retail
If you were thinking the scope of products available on Singles Day was limited to clothing and electrical goods, you might be surprised by the top 10 categories of imported products bought by Chinese consumers. Leading the way: health supplements, followed by milk powder, facial masks, nappies, and serum. Infant and toddler nutrition was also a top 10 item, as were make-up products including emulsions, face wash, and toner.

In 2018, sales of Australian lamb grew 775% over the previous year, showing that Chinese consumers value international food products. It’s a trend that is well on the rise.

It’s Not Just About Digital
Another trend that became more apparent this year was the convergence of online and offline retail channels. Business Insider reports that roughly 20% of Chinese retail sales take place online, meaning there’s another 80% of sales that Alibaba isn’t really benefitting from. Those 80% of sales present a huge growth opportunity for the company in years to come, and this year, we started to see the first steps toward that with the company’s bricks and mortar stores offering 11/11 discounts.

Case in point: Hema, the Alibaba owned physical supermarkets in China, are an example of what Alibaba coins “new retail” where consumers can order online and pick up their goods at a convenient time. Hema is especially popular among Chinese consumers for its fresh food—a boon to the burgeoning Chinese middle class who have less time to shop and cook. This year, Hema’s Singles Day sales totals did not count towards the officially released figures, but depending on how the company decides to measure new retail sales, we could see a significant boost to future Singles Day sales records.   

Alibaba also had activations with Starbucks, providing discounts to purchases made online and then consumed at a Starbucks location.

It’s Not Just About Low Prices
According to Joseph Tsai, Alibaba’s co-founder and vice chairman, Singles Day is both a sport and entertainment. Case in point was Alibaba’s gala in Shanghai to kick off the event, featuring appearances by international celebrities including singer Mariah Carey and supermodel Miranda Kerr. The event housed a giant screen that showed the surging sales numbers in real time.    

This Singles Day, over 1 billion parcels were posted. According to Alibaba, more than 180,000 brands were on sale, including brands that rarely discount or promote their products, including Apple, Dyson, Amazon’s Kindle, Nike, and Adidas. Associate Professor Gary Mortimer, of Queensland University of Technology Business School, noted that unlike other sales periods, such as Boxing Day, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, Singles Day isn’t aimed at lowering prices to remove stock.

“The motive for Singles Day is all about self-gifting, about rewarding yourself for hard work and sacrifice,” he told Smart Company.

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