November 22, 2017

China Redefines Retail In A Single(s) Day

I have seen the future of retail...and it looks a lot like China.

On November 11, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba celebrated its annual "Singles Day*" sale. In one day, Alibaba sites notched up US$25.3 billion in sales. As an event, it was 18 times larger than Amazon Prime Day, and 2.5 times bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday put together. The stats are breathtaking - US$1.5 billion in sales in the first three minutes, up to 256,000 transactions a second, 812 million orders made, with a growth rate year on year of 39.3%.

On top of Alibaba's sales, e-commerce competitor JD.com achieved US$19.14 billion over what they called the Single's Day "period", from November 1-12. So, all told, it was the greatest retail event in the history of the world. (I can't believe I just typed that, but it's true.)

That's not what excited me, however. At VML, we regularly forecast the future - including where retail is headed. We also participate in building out a future Connected Consumer Experience, through innovative digital platforms and experiences. In Single's Day, I saw the future in action, at scale. For example:

  • The future is mobile. 90% of transactions on Single's Day were made via mobile phone - by comparison, Forbes noted that about 30% of Black Friday purchasers used mobile payments.
  • The future is integrated. A "See Now, Buy Now" fashion show was staged in the run-up to 11.11 - live broadcast over seven different platforms, with shoppers able to instantly buy items seen on the runway, in real time, through Tmall.
  • The future is "retail-tainment." Alibaba claims to have invented the term "retail-tainment". While that is dubious, they certainly set out to make Single's Day as much an entertainment as a shopping extravaganza. The opening Friday night gala featured Nicole Kidman and Pharrell Williams counting down to the midnight kick-off.
  • The future is AR. An Augmented Reality game called "Catch the Cat" was a fun way for shoppers to "capture" discount coupons for purchase on 11.11. 
  • The future is smart bricks and mortar. Single's Day featured a plethora of smart pop-ups - collaborations between brands and Tmall. These were bristling with technology, such as a Maybelline pop-up which allowed shoppers to try on lipstick virtually.
  • The future is frictionless. All up, Alibaba sought to demonstrate their concept of "New Retail" -  a purposeful blurring of offline and online, brought to life in stores like Alibaba's supermarket concept Hema, which is totally driven by mobile.
  • The future is borderless. Alibaba set out to make Single's Day a "global shopping festival", and more than 100 Chinese brands were made available overseas on Tmall, with free shipping to ten countries.

As science fiction writer William Gibson famously wrote: "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed". Single's Day offers us a clear view of where retail is going, and China is leading the way.

*Why "Singles Day" in the first place? Well, the concept originated as a kind of bachelor's day in Nanjing University in 1993. It got its name because the date is made up of four "one's" - 11.11. Unattached singles are known as "bare sticks", according to the New York Times. Alibaba co-opted the concept in 2009 and turned it into an e-commerce event.