As Alibaba and JD.com gear up for Singles’ Day in China on 11 November, Drapers takes a look at whether the shopping event could be the UK’s new sales phenomenon.
One-day online shopping extravaganzas such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day are popular in the UK and US – but, globally, these are dwarfed by 11 November in China, known as Singles’ Day.
The annual 24-hour event, which has been dominated by Alibaba-owned platform Tmall since founder Jack Ma launched its “11.11 Global Shopping Festival” in 2009, is the largest ecommerce day in the world.
Alibaba raked in a record $17.8bn (£13.5bn) in sales last year, earning $5bn (£3.8bn) within the first hour alone.
These figures eclipse UK online spending on Black Friday, which etail association IMRG last year estimated reached £1.23bn on the day in 2016, totalling £6.45bn over the peak seven-day period.
It even overshadowed spending in Black Friday’s US homeland, which generated a record $3.34bn (£2.5bn), tallying $12.8bn (£9.7bn) in the five days between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday in 2016, according to Adobe Digital Insights.
More than 130 UK brands will take part in Singles’ Day this year through Tmall, including Burberry and LK Bennett, the latter having signed on in recent weeks. Nike, Clarks and Topshop were among its top-performing brands last year.
At first glance, such astronomical sales volumes signal plenty of opportunities for retailers looking to make an impression in a lucrative market.
Alibaba’s international business development lead, Mei Chen, says: “There is huge demand from Chinese consumers for foreign goods; especially UK brands, which are associated with high quality, heritage and [being] at the forefront of fashion. We’re enabling foreign brands to access China’s consumption power.”
New Look, which has partnered with Tmall since 2014, said it has gained several advantages through participation. Sales at the retailer nearly trebled in 2016 against Singles’ Day 2015.
New Look’s international managing director, Sven Gaede, says: “While, of course, [11.11] generates great sales, it has broader benefits in building our brand awareness and attracting new customers alongside our existing loyal base. The brand benefits are also positive for our 138 stores in the market, and support our continued growth there.”
However, it is worth noting that Tmall’s impressive sales figures do not take account of return rates. Chris Vincent, chief executive at multichannel consultancy Practicology, observes that, though it is “a good event to drive sales”, some of his clients see return rates of 30% or more.
“The inside track we have is that the return rates for Singles’ Day are high – so, in terms of profitability, the margins are not normally there for retailers,” says Vincent.
Equally, there may be little benefit for high street retailers to attempt to distance themselves from discounting strategies.
A spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer, which signed up to Tmall in 2012, confirmed that the retailer would take part in this year’s event, which typically offers 50% discounts. However, its participation comes as it conversely attempts to reduce its reliance on promotions during one-day shopping extravaganzas such as Black Friday, to focus instead on lower everyday prices.
But if retailers are canny about pricing, there could be much to gain from the world’s biggest shopping event.
Vincent says: “While there is an element of bargain shopping, retailers can benefit from a real spike in awareness with the right pricing strategy. It’s also a great way of shifting product – one of our big brands sold one million products last year, and has a stretch target of increasing this by 35% this year.”
In the meantime, retailers will no doubt be closely monitoring whether Alibaba will extend Singles’ Day to the UK, after spreading the event to territories including Hong Kong and Taiwan last year.
“There are a lot of discussions going on in terms of how we can interact with international consumers and brands, so watch this space,” teases Chen. “We are thinking about how we can take it to the next level in new markets.”
The Drapers verdict
While Singles’ Day generates a shopping frenzy that seems to multiply every year, its blindingly high figures do not take account of returns. The date also coincides with Armistice Day, making it hard to imagine how it might capture the UK retail scene in the same way Black Friday has done.
However, its disadvantages are arguably offset by its undeniable power to drive potential brand awareness, especially in the coveted Chinese market.