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While Brits reflect with poppies, money grows on trees for Chinese etailer

Two totally different news items caught my imagination this week and combined in my mind in an unexpected way.

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to see the astonishing installation of ceramic poppies around the Tower of London. On Tuesday this week, Remembrance Day, 13-year-old army cadet Harry Hayes ‘planted’ the last of the 888,246 flowers that represent each of the British or colonial deaths during the First World War. The best comment about this spectacle I have seen came from a Canadian tourist who remarked that you didn’t need to say anything about it; just looking at it was enough.

The work - entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red after a quote from an anonymous poem - was created by set designer Tom Piper from poppies designed by ceramic artist Paul Cummins. Reportedly all of them have been bought at £25 each to raise around £15m for six military charities. The vast moat of crimson around the Norman fortress is at once horrifying in what it represents and uplifting in what it symbolises about our collective national commitment to remembrance.

What impressed me was the imagination behind the project. Huge in scale, unique, engaging with the public and appropriate to the desired cause, this was a great formula to apply to any marketing or sales campaign. It also took something familiar - the annual poppy appeal - and rebooted it in a contemporary way that plugged into the minds of many more than the regular supporters of the cause. The centenary of the First World War might have helped with this anyway, but what a triumph it was.

Back in the vulgar world of commerce, I was equally as impressed - although not so spiritually uplifted - by the amazing statistics that came out of China this week about the online sales during its ‘Singles Day’ consumerism bonanza. The dominant Chinese etailer Alibaba racked up a bewildering 47.3bn yuan (about £4.85bn) of sales in this 24-hour online shopping fest, happily outstripping the modest 35bn yuan (£3.6bn) of 2013 and the piddling 19.1bn yuan (£1.96bn) of 2012. The company, which operates the huge Tmall and Taobao sites, said it had shipped 224 million orders by 8pm on the day, beating last year’s 150 million.

To put this in context, the entire group sales of Next hit ‘only’ £3.7bn in the entire year to January 14, while Arcadia managed ‘just’ £2.7bn in the 12 months to August 2013. What makes this all the more remarkable is that Singles Day is an entirely manufactured holiday, apparently dreamt up by some bachelor students at Nanjing University in the 1990s to poke fun at Chinese attitudes about the importance of marriage. The Chinese name for the phenomenon is translated more accurately as Bare Branches Day, a reference to the Chinese view of someone without a family. To represent this, the students selected a date resembling bare branches: 11/11.

Alibaba’s charismatic (and rather wealthy) founder Jack Ma launched a Singles Day Sale on the company’s etail platforms as long ago as 2009, appealing to China’s young urban singletons. As is often the way, the spending frenzy has spread to many social groups who buy for themselves (the original idea) and for others (the all-important expansion).

What a coincidence that both these remarkable events - in London and across China - should take place on November 11. Clearly, Remembrance Day is not the ideal date for a once-a-year buying extravaganza, but I wonder how long it will be until some enterprising (r)etailer comes up with a similar wheeze here to prompt consumers to spend on themselves - for the sake of it. The manufactured fuss about Black Friday (November 28) is certainly getting British consumers in the mood.

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