China’s Singles’ Day Sales Blew Past Black Friday and Cyber Monday—in 7 Hours

China’s biggest online shopping event generated more money in seven hours than the total revenues of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Singles’ Day, the online shopping extravaganza hosted by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. every Nov. 11, raked in over $20 billion by half past six in the morning. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are expected to generate $16.9 billion in sales this year, according to Adobe Analytics.

Singles’ Day sprung up on college campuses in China in the 1990s as a kind of anti-Valentine’s Day—the four ones in Nov. 11 are meant to represent and celebrate people without significant others—but since Alibaba co-opted the date in 2009, it now chiefly revolves around the shopping event, officially branded the “11.11 Global Shopping Festival.”

As of 4 P.M. on Nov. 11, the gross merchandise value (GMV), which measures the total value of orders passing through Alibaba’s payment service Alipay—and has been criticized for being a “meaningless” data point that overemphasizes e-commerce—surpassed $30 billion, last year’s Singles’ Day GMV.

Every year, the figure for GMV—Alibaba’s chief metric for measuring Singles’ Day—reaches new heights. This year, GMV passed $94 million in the first ten seconds after midnight, and reached $1 billion just over the one minute mark.

Singles’ Day is the busiest time of the year for the Chinese tech giant. Every year, the pressure is on to break last year’s sales records and make the celebration bigger and brighter. Employees camp out at the company’s Hangzhou campus with takeout and sleeping bags in preparation for the event.

This Singles’ Day has several added pressures. It is Alibaba’s first sans its famous founder, Jack Ma, who stepped down as executive chairman in September.

China is also in the midst of an economic slowdown, caused in part by its trade dispute with the U.S., that has bled into consumer spending: car sales in China have dropped sixteen months in a row, while instant noodle sales—seen as an indicator of consumers’ reluctance to spend—have spiked.

But overall consumption is still growing, especially in lower-tier cities and rural areas.

A glowing Singles’ Day GMV could provide an important boost for Alibaba’s upcoming initial public offering, which is expected to raise as much as $15 billion in Hong Kong.

Alibaba already is listed in New York, where it raised $25 billion. But it has long eyed a listing closer to home. The Hong Kong IPO was planned for August but delayed because of instability caused by that city’s ongoing anti-government protests.

Now, Alibaba must file an IPO before its deadline passes, and contend with continued uncertainty caused by the city’s unrest and by murky U.S.-China trade negotiations.

Expansion plans

Alibaba is focusing on global promotion and expansion. The majority of Singles’ Day purchases are domestic, but the GMV includes large markets like Southeast Asia, where sales on the regional e-commerce site Lazada (owned by Alibaba) feed into the Singles’ Day GMV.

Alibaba also is expanding into cloud computing and payments services, but the majority of its revenue is still generated by e-commerce.

Alibaba’s first Singles’ Day in 2009 generated $7.8 million in GMV over the 24-hour period. This year, Alipay processed $7.5 million in the first second after midnight, and in addition to the actual 24-hour period of Nov. 11, various pre-sales and post-sales stretch the event over weeks.

Alibaba added 300 new foreign brands to Tmall Global in the lead-up to 11.11, and worked with the embassies and consulates of eight countries, including Australia and Spain, to sell their offerings, in an effort to diversify the products available to Chinese consumers.

This year the company snagged Taylor Swift, its most high-profile headliner yet, to perform three songs from her new album Lover—which sold more copies in China than the U.S.—at the 11.11 Countdown Gala in Shanghai.

To aid promotion, Tmall Global also enlisted Kim Kardashian West—a noted nemesis of Swift’s—to live-stream her cosmetics line, which is now available on Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall sites.

But the U.S. influencer’s live-stream sales relied heavily on the mega-popular Chinese influencer Viya calling in via video chat—Kardashian’s livestream had just 100,000 views while Viya had over 13 million people tuned in to hers.

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