This year’s Singles’ Day shopping festival, an enormously successful Chinese e-commerce marketing effort that has grown so huge it’s practically an economic indicator, is offering one reassuring signal amid the US-China trade war.
The 24-hour shopping extravaganza was created in 2009 by e-commerce giant Alibaba to promote its platform for brands, now known as Tmall, and boost domestic buying in the midst of a global recession. The first festival saw just $7 million in sales (measured in gross merchandise volume, or GMV), but by 2015 the event had overtaken US shopping dates Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. This year it raked in over $9 billion within the first 20 minutes, and $14 billion in the first hour—a number boosted in part by presales that opened weeks ago.
With tit-for-tat tariffs since last July making US products more expensive, while the deepening of the US-China political rivalry has spurred patriotism in China, there were worries that US brands could take a hit on a day that last year accounted for around 4% of Alibaba’s full year GMV. Yet a number of US companies are doing remarkably well today.
The best example is probably Apple, whose iPhone 11 series was trolled on its debut by Chinese users for its lack of 5G, with many of them comparing it unfavorably to offerings from Chinese tech giant Huawei. Yet Apple sales within the first 10 minutes of the sale on Tmall were seven times those for the entire day last year, according to a Tmall announcement (link in Chinese). It’s not clear how many units were sold this year compared with last year. On JD.com, China’s second largest e-commerce platform, sales of Apple products in the first 10 minutes were six times (link in Chinese) those in the same amount of time last year.
Other American brands such as Nike, Adidas and Estée Lauder also sold well, with the brands ranking among those whose sales breached 100 million yuan, a threshold for measuring whether brands have had good momentum, as of 1 am on Monday, according to Chinese tech information provider Cnbeta. The US also ranked as the second-biggest source of products, following Japan, according to Alibaba. The event pulled in a number of US celebrities, including reality star Kim Kardashian who made her livestream debut on Tmall last week to promote her cosmetics line, and pop star Taylor Swift, who appeared at its televised countdown on Sunday (Nov. 10).
Beyond retail brands, American food and beverage companies like Starbucks, KFC and Burger King also saw their sales on Ele.me, a food delivery platform owned by Alibaba, surpass the companies’ full-day 2018 figures less than two hours into the shopping festival, according to Radio France Internationale.
The continued Chinese passion for American brands during the festival carries particular significance this year. American businesses, ranging from NBA to Apple, have been increasingly caught between the demands of American institutions and consumers that ask the companies to stand up to Beijing’s censorship, and an increasingly nationalistic Chinese government and citizens. A recent survey from global consulting firm AlixPartners conducted before the Singles’ Day found around 80% of Chinese shoppers said they would boycott American brands during the shopping festival, citing “patriotism” as the major reason against the backdrop of the trade battle. However, the positive numbers for major American brands on Singles’ Day suggest a resilience based on the companies’ long cultivation of a loyal customer base in the country.
Earlier, despite the NBA’s spat with China over a tweet supporting Hong Kong that prompted many in China to say they’d boycott games, seats for the league’s two exhibition games in China were largely full.
“Ultimately Chinese consumers are practical and look for brands and products that appeal to them. Both Nike and Apple have been consistently delivering that consumer delight globally and also in China,” said Adam Xu, a Shanghai-based partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants, via email. Xu pointed out that one important driver for the growth of American brands is also the steep discounts they offer during the festival, which started off as a joking rejoinder to Valentines’ Day.
The sale ends at midnight tonight, and analysts will be looking to see by how much this year’s buying has been able to surpass last year’s figure, a kind of report card on consumer sentiment. An analyst told the Wall Street Journal (paywall) that a growth rate of less than 20% would be a shock, while 25% would be reassuring. The festival also has its critics, who say it promotes indiscriminate buying and produces enormous amounts of packaging waste.