It’s the biggest event in the second week of November 2016. No, it’s not the US presidential election. It’s China’s November 11 “Singles Day,” a $14 billion, 24-hour shopping extravaganza invented and more or less owned by Chinese commerce giant Alibaba. For perspective, it’s estimated that record US election spending will top $6 billion over the course of the 2016 races, or about the same as what Singles Day sales generates in nine hours. And this year, Alibaba plans to break last year’s record, in part by going outside China’s borders with the help of Costco—and American pop star Katy Perry.
The billions of dollars in sales Alibaba generates in China are impressive for sure but it means the retailer is likely getting close to tapping out the market. To continue its stratospheric growth, Alibaba needs to get non-Chinese consumers to, quite literally, buy in to a Nov. 11 consumer holiday. In fact, the stated goal of Alibaba is to be “serving 2 billion consumers in 20 years.” To this end, the company now officially calls its Singles Day holiday—which it trademarked—“11/11 Global Shopping Festival.” That’s going to be a hard sell. (For background on Singles Day, read this first. For an explanation of all of Alibaba’s retail platforms and payment services, read this.)
Taking 11/11 global is a monumental task facing strong headwinds both practical and cultural. It’s no wonder then that Alibaba is starting in Hong Kong, technically a part of China.
Honk Kongers have taken part in 11/11 for years, of course. But this year, Alibaba is creating a Tmall.hk. The use of the Hong Kong-based platform will allow shoppers to use Hong Kong dollars and methods like credit cards and “Octopus” cards. This experiment will make it easier for consumers in Hong Kong and Taiwan to take part in 11/11 and also easier for Alibaba to chalk up a “global” victory without actually going all that global.
Like any billion-dollar holiday, there is a lot more to it than the day itself. In many ways, 11/11 is already under way. Previously Alibaba marketed the holiday largely by teasing extraordinary pricing. But its marketing has matured and the company now aims to create a fever in the weeks leading up to 11/11. Its communications now refer to a “consumer experience” instead of an “online sale.”
Alibaba has already sponsored an eight-hour, 200-model catwalk event that it streamed live, teasing fashions by La Perla and Burberry. The fashion show was built around its new motto “See Now Buy Now” and the hope of expanding 11/11 to regularly include this event as a kind of, in Alibaba’s words, “fashion week at their fingertips.”
— Alibaba.com (@AlibabaTalk) October 25, 2016
This year’s shopping holiday will be headlined by 11/11 “Ambassador” and US pop star Katy Perry. Foreign stars are no stranger to Singles Day. Last year, British actor Daniel Craig (aka James Bond) joined Alibaba founder Jack Ma on-stage and teasers for the event featured Kevin Spacey in his now-iconic role as President Frank Underwood from Netflix hit show House of Cards.
Alibaba is hyping Costco’s role as a retail partner as a way to demonstrate how global its reach is becoming. But Costco is still functioning as a normal Singles Day retail partner, not much different from Uniqlo or Nike, all of which operate “storefronts” on Alibaba platforms like Tmall.com and, this year, Tmall.hk. The partnership between Costco and Alibaba is not new.
Two years ago, the retail giants teamed up and the experiment left Costco somewhat dazed after its Tmall.com online store sold more that $3.5 million worth of goods in a day. Costco’s participation this time round will be designated as part of Alibaba’s “Sell Globally” pilot program. After this year’s 11/11, the results of the pilot program will likely give Alibaba, and investors, a better picture (and plenty of data) regarding the likelihood Singles Day has a chance of catching on outside China.