As the stroke of midnight hit, the giant video display at ground zero of the day, the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, reported that the gross merchandise value (GMV) sold in the past 24 hours by participating merchants exceeded 213.5 billion yuan, or US$30.8 billion. This surpassed last year’s total, US$25.3 billion, by nearly 20%.

So, it seems the ecommerce engine is still strong in China, but are there any other takeaways from the sensational event?

The spectacle of Singles’ Day

One interesting aspect of the event was the massive publicity surrounding something as seemingly mundane as ecommerce. Alibaba has elevated what, elsewhere, would just be considered a lot of people buying stuff on their computer.

On the Saturday night before the start of the sales, at what could only be described as a ‘gala shopping event’, attendees at the Mercedes-Benz Area in Shanghai were entertained by celebrities including:

  • Cirque de Soleil
  • Australian model Miranda Kerr
  • American basketball star Allen “The Answer” Iverson
  • Singer Mariah Carey

And, of course, Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma.

In addition to the celebrity appearances, there were performances by several boy and girl bands who sang various shopping-related songs.

One, co-sponsored by the German grocer Aldi, included lyrics which, loosely translated, encouraged shoppers to ‘buy, buy, buy’. Backup dancers sported Aldi shopping carts to emphasize the song’s consumerist message.

The sales

The real excitement started when the sale commenced following a dramatic countdown at midnight. After a siren announcing the start, GMV figures were displayed on a giant screen at the center of the arena, and they began to shoot up immediately.

Within 30 minutes, it was reported that Apple and its Chinese rival Xiaomi had already exceeded 100 million yuan (US$14 million) in sales. Shortly after, it was announced that apparel brands Nike, Adidas and Uniqlo had, too. By the end of the sale, more than 200 other brands joined the ‘100 million yuan club’ as well.

A gigantic counter tracking how many brands’ gross market value had surpassed 10 billion RMB (renminbi, also called yuan).

Throughout the day, Alibaba hosted a “See Now Buy Now” fashion show at the arena which was live-streamed on all the major Chinese social media platforms: Taobao’s app, Youku, Weibo and Toutiao.

As the name of the show implies, viewers could click on the catwalk video and immediately purchase the items on display.

Figures consistently rose through the early morning and next day until midnight Monday when the final, record-breaking figures were reported. Overall, it is estimated that around 180,000 brands contributed to the total GMV of the bonanza, with more than 40% of sales going to international brands.

The “See Now Buy Now” catwalk livestream

Other noteworthy results included:

  • MAC sold 3,700 Singles’ Day special edition lipstick in one second.
  • Buick, the US auto manufacturer, sold over 7,000 vehicles on the day
  • Apple iPhones outsold models from China’s major smartphone brands, Huawei and Xiaomi.

A mixed success?

Surprisingly, analysis of whether the event was successful has been mixed.

Singapore’s Straits Times pointed out that while the overall GMV exceeded previous years, growth from last year’s event was ‘just’ 27%, the smallest since the event started 10 years ago.

The New York Times, while acknowledging the overall success of the event, reported on the disillusionment of some shoppers. Several interviews with less-than-impressed Chinese consumers led the paper to conclude that, despite a history of success, that “the party may not last”.

Yet these negative takes were overshadowed by the global media coverage of the event and the fact that Singles’ Day was successfully launched in Southeast Asia through Alibaba’s partner site, Lazada. Sales on Singles’ Day in Singapore were double those reported in 2017.

Marketers should, therefore, keep an eye out for Singles’ Day 2019 as the delightfully over-the-top shopping event continues to grow in size and global footprint.

The best APAC digital marketing stats from October 2018