Singles' Day (11.11)
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Alibaba’s Tmall promotes the 2021 Singles’ Day shopping festival ahead of presales, which started on October 20. The world’s largest shopping festival is less of a draw this year than it used to be amid increased competition and a regulatory crackdown from Beijing. Photo: Handout

Alibaba’s Singles’ Day shopping bonanza loses lustre amid China’s Big Tech crackdown, competition from live streaming

  • China’s tech and antitrust crackdowns have added pressure on e-commerce platforms as the world’s biggest shopping festival faces declining popularity
  • Live-streaming e-commerce has emerged as a popular alternative for deals, boosting the year-round popularity of ByteDance’s Douyin and Kuaishou
For six years in a row, Ding Xiaojuan has “chopped” hands for the Singles’ Day shopping festival, a popular expression among Chinese consumers describing an obsession with online retail that is so out of control that they want to cut off their hands to stop bleeding money.

“I set alerts and stayed up late until midnight in previous years to pay for my orders so that I could get extra presents for being the first batch to pay,” the 39-year-old said, attributing the behaviour to being “crazy” in the past.

That craziness has subsided, according to Ding, who says she feels less passionate about the world’s largest shopping spree these days. Her budget for the annual event is now about 2,000 yuan (US$312), a quarter of what she used to spend.

Alibaba focuses on social responsibility ahead of Singles’ Day

“There are so many options now and I found products are not necessarily the cheapest during Singles’ Day,” said Ding, who works at a secondary school in Enshi, in China’s central Hubei province. “Sometimes you can find real bargains via live streaming, even during normal days.”

Started in 2009 by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the South China Morning Post, Singles’ Day has evolved from a one-day festival on November 11 into a multibillion-dollar event spanning weeks that major Chinese e-commerce sites promote heavily, making it closely watched by industry insiders and analysts as a bellwether for consumer spending in the country.
After more than a decade, though, there are signs that Singles’ Day is losing some of its lustre. There have been complaints in recent years about increasingly abstruse discount methods, requiring shoppers to make complicated calculations. The emergence of more shopping festivals and platforms has also given consumers less reason to hold out for Alibaba’s shopping event.
Live-streaming e-commerce, for example, has surged in popularity on short video platforms like Kuaishou Technology and its rival Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok that is also operated by ByteDance, during the pandemic. Alibaba’s Taobao Live is also a big player in this space.

“Five, six years ago, it was still a two-horse race with Alibaba and And now with Pinduoduo and all those social commerce platforms and live-streaming platforms coming in, there’s intense competition for a share of [consumers’] wallets,” said James Yang, partner at consulting firm Bain & Company’s consumer products, retail and strategy practices division.

Over 50 per cent of consumers surveyed by Bain & Company this year plan to use three or more platforms during Singles’ Day, according to a report published in October.

Workers sort out packages for delivery at’s Yizhuang Smart Delivery Station in Beijing, on Wednesday Nov 11, 2020. Photo: Simon Song

“I never thought I really took advantage of Singles’ Day,” said 25-year-old Lucy Liu, who lives in Shanghai. “All I can do is to clip coupons through price-break discounts.”

Price-break discounts, a common promotional tool during Singles’ Day, offer consumers immediate discounts on orders above a certain amount. Merchants now tend to give more gifts rather than discounts, which typically means consumers spend more for more products.

Liu said she has found complex Singles’ Day deals troublesome, as good sales have become more common elsewhere. “There are discounts even if it’s not [Singles’ Day]. For example, I can buy make-up and skincare products at a nice price from daigou,” she said, referring to buying products imported from overseas.

Singles’ Day also faces new challenges this year. It is the first one since Alibaba was hit with an antitrust probe at the end of last year, and the world’s second largest economy is seeing weakened demand amid a zero-tolerance approach towards Covid-19, which has hit incomes and household spending.

Alibaba’s Taobao briefly breaks down amid Singles’ Day presales

China’s economic growth in the third quarter slowed to 4.9 per cent, while retail sales, a barometer of consumer spending, rose just 4.4 per cent from a year ago in September, according to China’s statistics bureau.

Beijing’s antitrust crackdown, which has targeted several Big Tech companies, has also forced a shift in business practices. A ban on monopolistic practices such as forced exclusivity – a once-popular tactic used to lock merchants into one platform – has made competition more fierce this year.

Regulators have also started to require that internet platforms tear down their notorious walled gardens that prevent interoperability of companies’ products.
Tencent Holdings’ WeChat, China’s largest social media platform with 1.25 billion monthly active users, has started allowing links to rival platforms in one-to-one chats, including those for Alibaba, to comply with regulations.
Alibaba also now allows users to pay with WeChat Pay on some of its platforms, such as the food-delivery service, video-streaming platform Youku, online ticketing platform Damai and cross-border e-commerce platform Kaola.
Alibaba’s bargain marketplace Taobao Deals, second-hand e-commerce platform Idle Fish, and grocery chain Freshippo are still awaiting approval from Tencent to include WeChat Pay, Alibaba said in late September. The company did not mention its main e-commerce platforms Taobao and Tmall.

“Connectivity and openness is key to ensuring the best shopping experience,” Chris Tung, chief marketing officer of Alibaba, said during a media conference on October 27. “We’re truly seeing the benefits of these collaborations and openness and are excited to continue to move forward and achieve more of these in the future.”

Beijing is also considering asking companies such as Tencent and ByteDance to let competing platforms access and display their content in search results, according to a report from Bloomberg late last month, citing anonymous sources.

These moves are affecting hundreds of thousands of stores like InstaHot, an online clothing store with 765,000 followers and a monthly turnover of 2 million yuan on Taobao.

“The impact [of interoperability] is really huge,” said Tang, the head of InstaHot’s Taobao store, who asked to be identified only by his surname. “Many intermediate steps could be cut. Fewer clicks and increased convenience will definitely improve the conversation rates.”

Beijing police crack down on live-streaming e-commerce data theft

Tang added that the ban on platform exclusivity did not affect small and medium-sized enterprises like InstaHot very much because it was common to choose a different name for different sites. That would be a more difficult choice for established brands, he said.

Tearing down the walled gardens “will definitely have a direct impact on the competitive landscape of Singles’ Day,” said Zhao Xiaofeng, an assistant professor at Lingnan University’s department of finance and insurance. “Big Tech companies should think about whether the advantages they had before due to their closed ecosystems are core competencies for them.”

Zhao said Tencent-backed social e-commerce platform Pinduoduo might be the biggest loser from the recent changes, as its growth has been largely driven by the support of Tencent’s social media platforms. With the opening up of Tencent, Alibaba and Douyin will benefit, he said.

“The operating efficiency of merchants will significantly improve after the opening up,” Zhao said. “Small and medium-sized enterprises will have more autonomy [in marketing] and depend less on the big platforms, which might inspire the emergence of new companies and new brands.”

Amid these regulatory headwinds, Alibaba’s shopping extravaganza is relatively low key compared with past years.

Alibaba displays 498.2 billion yuan in gross merchandise volume during the 2020 Singles’ Day shopping festival Hangzhou Future Sci-Tech City, in eastern Zhejiang province, on November 12, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

Alibaba has long used Singles’ Day to showcase its sales and marketing prowess. It has typically been accompanied by elaborate countdown galas in the hours ahead of November 11, with international superstars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry making appearances. It would then broadcast the eye-popping sales figures on a giant screen at the end of the marathon event.

This year, in contrast, the Hangzhou-based tech giant has highlighted a slew of initiatives in line with Beijing’s increasing focus on environmental sustainability and social equality.

Last year, President Xi Jinping announced that China aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In April this year, the government also asked businesses to redesign their websites and apps to cater to the country’s ageing population. Xi has repeatedly emphasised the need for China to promote common prosperity, as well, urging high-income businesses and individuals to give back to society.

Alibaba has several initiatives tying into these goals.

Tmall is issuing 100 million yuan worth of “green vouchers” to encourage purchasing decisions that “contribute to an environmentally friendly lifestyle”, while Alibaba’s logistics arm Cainiao Network started opening recycling stations for packaging materials at 10,000 distribution stations across 20 cities this month.

Selves of inventory inside a warehouse of Cainiao, the logistics subsidiary of Alibaba, ahead of the company's annual Singles' Day shopping extravaganza in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, on November 9, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg

To help elderly users, Taobao introduced a “senior mode” meant to make the app easier to navigate for older users, with modifications like larger text and buttons.

The platform is also allowing sellers to donate a portion of their sales to efforts supporting senior citizens living alone, “left-behind children” in rural areas and low-income workers, and will make a 1 yuan donation for every social media post mentioning “Goods for Good” purchases.

“In the early stage of Double 11, we focused on growth, the same way that parents would focus on a child’s height and strength,” said Alibaba’s Tung. “But as a child becomes a teenager, the parents shift their focus to nurturing the child’s sense of responsibility and the role he or she plays in society. And that is what we are doing now.”

Despite dampened enthusiasm for Singles’ Day, however, there are still signs of growth.

During the first wave of Singles’ Day presales this year, from October 20 to 31, Tmall’s gross merchandise value grew more than 50 per cent year on year to surpass 80 billion yuan, according to an estimate from research firm Yipitdata.

Apparel saw the biggest increase, more than doubling last year’s October presales, followed by home decor. Electronics, sports and outdoors, and health care lagged behind, according to the data provider.


Amid pandemic, Chinese consumers spend US$74.1 billion during Singles’ Day online sales festival

Amid pandemic, Chinese consumers spend US$74.1 billion during Singles’ Day online sales festival

Taobao Live also saw sales increase 88.8 per cent year on year during the first sales window from November 1 to 3, Alibaba said. kicked off its Singles’ Day event in late October, as well, with the Beijing-based e-commerce giant expecting to sell over 30 billion yuan worth of farm products for the event.

Kuaishou runs its own 116 shopping festival from October 20 to November 11, with most sales happening on November 6. The short video platform operator said its live-streaming rooms received 2.3 billion views and 15 million likes from October 20 to 31.

Smaller sellers are continuing their hectic pursuit of sales, as well.

A reality show called The Offer for All Girls released in September detailed how live-streamer Li Jiaqi negotiated with brands to offer lower prices on his channel. In one episode, Li pressed brands to offer discounts of more than 50 per cent by promising to sell 200,000 items. CEO Richard Liu gives up presidency position amid tech crackdown

Li, known for his ability to sell massive amounts in short periods of time, sold 106 million yuan worth of products on October 20, the day Singles’ Day presales started.

From her home in Taizhou, in eastern Zhejiang province, Wang Yanqing watched Li’s show that day until midnight. “I wasn’t planning to buy [face] powder at all, then I heard him saying, ‘Buy one, get one free. You guys may not be able to get a spot.’ Then my desire to win went up,” she said.

Wang did not even want two packs, she said, so she sold the extra one for 180 yuan, having paid 350 yuan for both, to another woman after posting it on the microblogging platform Weibo.

“Indeed, many people didn’t get it,” she said. “There were a lot of people asking when I tried to sell the extra one.”