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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Alibaba sales top Dh89bn - in 16 hours

Annual Singles’ Day extravaganza sets a record as shoppers swarmed the Chinese e-commerce giant’s online bazaars

Alibaba staff celebrate sales after the end of the Singles Day shopping festiva in Shangha. AFP
Alibaba staff celebrate sales after the end of the Singles Day shopping festiva in Shangha. AFP

Alibaba logged 168.3 billion yuan (Dh89.24bn) in sales in 16 hours of its annual Singles’ Day extravaganza, setting a record as shoppers swarmed the e-commerce giant’s online bazaars.

China’s largest company, which used a concurrent televised entertainment spectacle featuring Cirque du Soleil and Mariah Carey to further drum up business, reported that Xiaomi, Apple and Dyson products were the top three brands in early sales.

The annual retail celebration, originally dedicated to the nation’s unattached, has become an important bellwether not just for the company, but also the country. This year’s November 11 gala offers a glimpse of consumer sentiment in China as US tensions and a tit-for-tat tariff war depress stock markets and threaten to dampen the world’s second-biggest economy.

Alibaba surpassed the 100bn yuan mark less than two hours into Singles’ Day, according to Alibaba’s news website.

The challenge for billionaire Jack Ma and his lieutenant Daniel Zhang was to notch another record after a scorching decade-long run. With a cooling economy, saturated markets and competition from smaller platforms such as JD.com and Pinduoduo, Alibaba is seeking new growth engines.

“Alibaba is making use of all of its platforms to make Singles’ Day a holiday that also includes dining and entertainment,” Jet Jing, president of Tmall, one of the company’s main websites, said at the Singles’ Day event. “We’re connecting online shopping with offline physical outlets.”

The event was the brainchild of co-founder Mr Ma and Mr Zhang, who came up with the idea of turning the counter-cultural holiday into a shopfest a decade ago. First popularised by college students, November 11 emerged as an antidote to the sentimentality of Valentine’s Day. It takes its name from the way the day is written numerically as 11/11, which resembles “bare branches", a local expression for the unattached. Now, it’s become an excuse for people to shop, eat and binge on entertainment shows. It has become so enormous that packaging waste - Alibaba expects 1 billion packages to get shipped this year - and potential damage to the environment remain lingering issues.

The chief executive, who takes over from a retiring Mr Ma as chairman next year, must prove he can carry on that legacy. His Hangzhou-based company also uses the occasion to test the limits of its cloud computing, delivery and payments units.

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Still, there was some uncertainty this year, as the trade war and deflating asset values threaten to disrupt economic growth. Chinese online retail sales growth slowed to 24 per cent in the third quarter, down 12 percentage points from the previous three months, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

It’s been three years since Mr Ma said he wants to make Singles’ Day a global phenomenon. International expansion will be a key plank of Mr Zhang’s effort to keep breaking records. Last year, the top three non-Chinese Singles’ Day markets were Russia, tiny Hong Kong and the US - in that order. Popular items purchased overseas included mobile phones, wool coats and knitted sweaters.

In the first hour of this year’s Singles’ Day, the top countries selling to China were Japan, the US and South Korea, and the most popular items purchased overseas were dresses, wool coats, trousers and hoodies.

At the same time, Alibaba’s efforts to push into the US are sputtering. It discarded a pledge to create a million jobs in the country, lost its top American deal maker and jettisoned plans for affiliate Ant Financial to acquire MoneyGram. US President Donald Trump said in mid-October he plans to withdraw the US from a 192-nation treaty that gives Chinese companies discounted shipping rates for small packages sent to American consumers, making it harder for Chinese merchants to push into the market.

South East Asia will give the clearest indication of Alibaba’s ability to go global. With Singapore-based Lazada now fully under its wing, the region remains one of the company’s relative bright spots, amid a backdrop of slowing growth in China and turmoil brought on by the escalating trade war.