The 2018 edition of the world's biggest shopping event – Alibaba's Double 11 or Singles' Day – just went down in China. As the dust is settling it is clear to see that Chinese eCommerce is going from strength to strength, but everyone is not happy with the power Alibaba wields in controlling the market and dictating the rules. Regardless, it's hard not to be impressed with what has been accomplished in a mere ten years.
The origins of November 11th as Singles' Day are contested, but the generally accepted version is that it all started as a cheeky celebration of single life by university students in the 1990s, where the four 'ones' in the date got to represent pride in being single. The concept was co-opted by eCommerce giant Alibaba in the late 2010s. They promoted it as an occasion to treat yourself, and soon trademarked 'Double 11'. Since the first Alibaba-promoted Double 11 in 2009, the event has grown exponentially to become the biggest shopping event in the world.
Even for China's highly developed eCommerce sector, Double 11 represents a huge challenge. It's the day where systems are pushed to the limit; IT, customer service and sales teams work around the clock, and yearly budgets and targets hopefully go from red to black. After warnings of a slow-down of the Chinese economy, a looming trade war with the US, and rumours among China's eCommerce players that Double 11 had peaked last year already, the expectation of this year's edition were somewhat muffled.
Minutes after midnight on the 11th it was clear that any worries were unfounded, and at around 5pm last year's record was broken. After a hectic 24 hours sales had amounted to a mind-blowing 213.5 billion CNY – or almost 31 billion USD – up by 27 per cent on last year, and almost three times as much as the combined spending of American shoppers at last year's Black Friday. Sales hit 1 billion USD in one minute and 25 seconds, and in just over an hour after midnight sales exceeded 10 billion USD – five minutes and 21 seconds faster than last year. The total number of delivery orders surpassed a billion at the end of the day.
Accompanying the frenzy is the Tmall Double 11 Gala Night – a four variety show streamed directly to phones and broadcast on TV to viewers all over China – leading up to midnight and the start of the sale. This year's event was the third gala since its start in 2016, and featured NBA star Allen Iverson and American singer Mariah Carey. With an endless stream of celebrities, antics by Jack Ma himself and a seemingly unlimited advertising budget, Alibaba has turned a day of bargain hunting into something akin to Christmas in China.
The online team (front) and the customer service team (back) in Shanghai were in high spirits and prepared for a long night.