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Singles’ Day 2021: Lessons from the World’s Largest Shopping Festival

By Sarah Xu | November 12, 2021 | 0 Comments

MarketingDigital Marketing Strategy and Execution

It’s that time of year again when we deck the halls and retailers flood our inboxes with Black Friday and holiday gifting emails… starting in October. Just as the temperature started to cool down, retailers are prepared to extend shopping to accommodate global supply chain and logistics disruptions. It’s not just you, the holiday shopping season has only gotten longer this year.

On the other side of the world, e-commerce giant Alibaba promoted an extended shopping festival: Singles’ Day – an 11-day extravaganza culminating on 11/11, with presales starting October 20. The company owns Tmall, a Chinese competitor to Amazon. In 2020, Singles’ Day in China (during the 11 day range) raked in $78 billion in sales – compared to the $20 billion on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. This year, Alibaba sold $84.5 billion, an 8.5% increase year-over-year despite similar challenges with supply chain disruptions. More than 290,000 brands have participated, including prestigious luxury brands. With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, Double 11 is a test run as American retailers prepare for their own shopping festival.

Images of gifts wrapped up for the holidays

First, Some Context for Singles’ Day

For those not familiar with China’s ever-changing regulatory environment, the central government began investigating tech giants earlier this year including Alibaba, Tencent (owner of WeChat and the world’s largest video game publisher), and more, citing anti-competitive practices that stifle competition. The country is turning its focus on “common prosperity,” rather than continuously exacerbating socioeconomic inequality. As a result, Double 11 is more low-key and focused on CSR this year, which American consumers are also increasingly prioritizing.

In addition, China has kept up its zero-tolerance COVID policy after an early recovery in 2020. Throughout 2021, the government has been shutting down cities to reduce spread of infection. China has made it a point of pride to keep case numbers and deaths as low as possible, in stark contrast to the numbers in the U.S. amidst heating geopolitical tensions. There are also practical reasons to keep the virus contained with a population of 1.4 billion, though reportedly 77% are already fully vaccinated. Stuck at home on-and-off again, Chinese consumers are concentrating disposable income into online shopping to feel that dopamine rush. Whether this sales growth is sustainable once lockdowns are lifted and international travel rebounds is unclear, and marketers need to prepare for life with COVID as it will likely not be completely extinguished. 

Lessons for American Retailers

All of these fast changes combine to create a Singles’ Day like no other for Alibaba. To align itself with government sustainability initiatives, Tmall is incentivizing users with green vouchers for buying sustainable products. Its logistics arms are touting recyclable packaging and smart technology to use smaller box sizes. Instead of the traditional countdown and sales tallying, the finale livestream instead raised money to help an elephant reserve in rural China. While there is no government initiative involved in the U.S., retailers who want to cater to sustainability-driven consumers can look to China for inspiration. A Gartner survey shows that a large majority of consumers think it is just as important, if not more, important for brands to focus on environmental change now than it was in 2018. 

On a broader scale, American retailers need to prepare for supply chain woes to continue well into the holidays. For Double 11, Chinese sellers had to choose between cutting into profit with steep discounts but higher quantities sold, or offering less drastic discounts to account for rising costs. Marketers shaping up for Black Friday and Cyber Monday will face the same questions and in order to encourage customers to shop earlier, they should be transparent about inventory and offer price matching. Big retailers like Walmart offer price match if consumers find a better deal later in the holiday season, which can reassure consumers to pull the trigger now rather than wait for Black Friday. 

Going into the holiday season, retailers must:

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