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November 12, 2018

Clay Chandler, standing in for Alan today.

I write from Shanghai in the aftermath of Singles’ Day, the annual Nov. 11 shopping extravaganza orchestrated by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. This year marks the festival’s tenth year and, true to form, Alibaba smashed its own record for inciting consumer frenzy. Between midnight Sunday and midnight Monday, Alibaba racked up $30.8 billion in online sales as measured by its own metric of “gross merchandise value,” shattering last year’s record of $25.3 billion. That’s a staggering number, exceeding the $19.6 billion American consumers spent between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday last year, plus the $4 billion spent on Amazon’s July 16 Prime Day.

Alibaba works hard to whip up excitement for this event. Festivities commenced on Saturday night with a schmaltzy gala featuring Cirque Du Soleil, Mariah Carey, and supermodel Miranda Kerr. But one important celebrity, Alibaba founder and executive chairman Jack Ma, kept a low profile. In past years, Ma has appeared in increasingly elaborate performance routines, dressed as a punk rocker, Michael Jackson wannabe, or martial arts hero. But this year, Ma, who announced in September that he will retire next year, appeared in a pre-recorded video that showed him toiling alongside Alibaba employees wrapping packages and delivering meals.

Ma will cede the chairmanship to CEO Daniel Zhang, who dreamed up Singles’ Day ten years ago and has overseen its expansion into blockbuster success. And yet, unlike Ma, there’s not much PT Barnum in Zhang. He is buttoned down and earnest—so much so that he is sometimes mocked for his nerdiness. Last night, I found that lack of pretense something of a relief. Singles’ Day has become such a glitzy, over-the-top affair—the breathless emcees! the giant Cape Canaveral-style screens flashing the latest sales data! the stadium-sized media center!—that it is starting to feel contrived, like the company is trying just a little too hard to convince the world its sales are real.

This year, with the escalating U.S.-China trade war and slowing Chinese economy, there is new skepticism of Alibaba’s breakneck expansion. Many analysts noted that while gross merchandise value hit a new record at this year’s Singles’ Day, year-on-year growth fell to 27%, slowest in the event’s 10-year history

At a media briefing last night, executive vice chairman Joe Tsai argued the trade war can’t derail the rise of China’s middle class. “There are 300 million [in China’s] middle class. In the next 10 to 15 years, that number will double to 600 million,” he said. “That number is not going to stop, trade war or no trade war.”

Zhang argued Alibaba’s “New Retail” strategy, which combines online sales with a new focus on improving digital capabilities of bricks-and-mortar stores, offers ample room for further growth. “People always ask, ‘Daniel, what is the ceiling to this?’” he said. “But if we look at traditional online spending in China, it’s 20% of consumption.”

Meanwhile the group is highlighting its effort to use the vast trove of data it collects from its online commerce operations to diversify into new fields such as cloud services and artificial intelligence. Some of those technologies, including an A.I.-enabled car, a “smart hotel” room served by robots instead of people, and a giant robotic arm that mixed and poured coffee and cocktails, were on display. Late Sunday night, Ma himself made a brief cameo at the media center to tour the exhibit and admire its marvels.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com
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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer. Find previous editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here.

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