Singles’ Day, the World’s Biggest Shopping Event, Faces a Headwind

Singles’ Day—the world’s largest annual online shopping event—will see its thirteenth iteration on Nov. 11. The event began as a small Chinese shopping day with 27 participants in 2009. It has grown to be an international phenomenon featuring livestream performances and celebrities.

Market watchers view the annual “Double 11” festival, as it’s also called in China, as a barometer of consumption power in the world’s most populous nation—and going by that metric, consumption has been robust. Alibaba and, the rival platform, recorded $115 billion worth of transactions in 2020, despite COVID-19’s relentless assault. Adobe Analytics, an online marketing data provider, reported that Black Friday transactions were $9 billion at eighty-one of the 100 largest retailers in America. Cyber Monday was $10.8 billion.
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The credit cards of Chinese consumers might not suffer such severe damage this year. A government crackdown on tech companies has left the main players subdued and cautious, while China’s carbon neutral pledges, as well as a campaign against social inequality, have seen conspicuous consumption fall, at least temporarily, out of political favor.

The impact of the Chinese supply chain crisis on fashion is also a concern for insiders. European brands could be unable to fill Chinese orders. “If you have a manufacturing base in Asia, you could bypass the bottlenecks in Europe as you’re closer to the market,” a retail analyst in the UThis is.K., Paul Martin, told the venerable British trade journal Draper’s. “But we know many products are sent from factories in China to the U.K. to be shipped to Chinese customers and supply chains are under a lot of pressure.”

Alibaba's Singles' Day Online Shopping Event
Qilai shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images Jiang Fan, president of Taobao and Tmall at Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., speaks as a final transaction figure is displayed at the gala event for Alibaba’s annual November 11 Singles’ Day online shopping event in Hangzhou, China, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

Singles’ Day and Sustainability

At first sight, it’s business as usual. Alibaba’s eastern coast city Hangzhou is home to 290,000 participating brands. Tmall’s ecommerce platform Tmall is expected to offer over 14 million deals for more than 900 million users. Yet, the retailer giant is avoiding the promotion of unlimited consumption. Indeed, Alibaba now says the event has “an emphasis on sustainability and inclusiveness.”

Tmall will highlight energy-efficient products and issue $15.6 million in vouchers as incentives for “environmentally-friendly lifestyle” shopping. Alibaba’s logistics arm has opened up recycling stations in response to the amount of packaging waste the shopping spree generates. Alibaba’s Taobao shopping app will have a new feature that makes it easier for seniors to use. A charity initiative known as “Goods for Good” will also see Alibaba donate a renminbi—the equivalent of 16 cents—every time consumers take to social media to share what they have purchased under the program, with the proceeds going to support “elderly citizens living in solitude, ‘left-behind children’ in remote areas and low-income workers.”

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The tonal shift comes in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” drive As TIME earlier reported, the phrase was first popularized by revolutionary Mao Zedong but has now been adopted by Xi to underscore the Chinese Communist Party’s commitment to a fairer society. “Expanding the proportion of middle-income groups, increasing the incomes of low-income groups, reasonably adjusting high incomes [and] banning illegal incomes,” are the aims, according to the People’s Daily.

Xi’s pledge that China will become carbon neutral by 2060 has also made many rethink the role of an event that—according to Greenpeace—generated 52,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2016, as planes and delivery vehicles raced to get goods to purchasers.

China’s leader may be fraying the nerves of business magnates with his plans, but this is the country’s way of bidding for a leadership role in the global shift towards green industries and sustainable value chains, says Emily de La Bruyere, a Chinese industrial policy expert from the U.S-think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Beijing sees both of these as opportunities and is looking to dominate the value change at the green energy or environmental revolution, while at the same time controlling the architecture of the digital revolution,” de La Bruyere tells TIME.

College students carrying packages at online shopping pick
Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesCollege students carrying packages at an online shopping pick up point in Haikou, China, on Singles’ Day, Nov, 11, 2020

Singles Day’s Impact

But despite the talk of a more caring, sharing event, there can be no denying that Singles’ Day remains a consumer orgy of epic proportions As Alibaba began its pre-sale event on Oct. 20, its shopping platform Taobao Marketplace crashed for 20 minutes due to heavy traffic from “overenthusiastic” consumers. Influencers like Austin “Lipstick King” Li Jiaqi and Viya moved the equivalent of $2.97 billion of merchandise during the warm-up, according to Chinese paper Economic Daily. saw 40% more visitors in its first 4 hours than it did in the entire 2020 pre-sale. The COVID-19 pandemic is not affecting spending plans. A survey from Bain & Company found that slightly more than half of 3,000 Chinese consumers surveyed intend to spend more than they did last year.

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Manufacturers already struggling with severe supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and container backlogs could face a problem due to strong demand. In these volatile conditions, a record-breaking Singles’ Day might be the last thing the logistics business needs.

Steffi Noël, a project leader at China-based market research firm Daxue Consulting, thinks the system can withstand the stress test. “The impact of the crisis on deliveries to consumers, and especially deliveries to consumers during Double 11, is here, but completely manageable for China,” she tells TIME.

Some experts disagree. “For logistics and supply chain managers, the pandemic and the subsequent robust rebound in demand has presented many with once-in-a-career challenges,” says Stephen Olson, senior fellow at the Hinrich Foundation—an organization that advocates for sustainable global trade.

“Singles Day will only intensify those challenges. There is no easy way around this.”


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