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Singles’ Day 2022: What’s Different?

Singles’ Day in China (November 11) is the largest shopping day in the world, bigger than Amazon’s Prime Day and Black Friday combined. This has been Alibaba’s flagship shopping day since they launched it in 2009, and it has consistently racked up strong sales figures through its marketing efforts. For one, Alibaba helped to develop “shoppingtainment” in China with a national television extravaganza that would air annually on November 10, featuring global celebrities like Taylor Swift, David Beckham, and an assortment of K-pop bands. Second, Alibaba worked to extend the reach of Single’s Day to Southeast Asia through its Lazada platform and many other countries now participate, formally or informally.

But is the shine off? This year will see the most challenging environment since the inception of Single’s Day. Not only is China’s economy in slow-growth mode, with consumer confidence rattled by Covid lockdowns and bubbling inflation warnings, but amid pressure from regulators on China’s dominant tech firms there is now sharper competition from short video platforms such as Douyin (called Tik-Tok in the U.S. and elsewhere). Will it be the same holiday?

Yes and no. There are still many factors that haven’t changed. E-commerce is still the fastest-growing sales channel in China, and China is still the largest retail market in the world. (Yes, China’s consumers spend more than U.S. consumers even though in GDP terms, the U.S. has the larger economy.)

And Alibaba remains the largest sales channel in that e-commerce ecosystem, even with the new competition. We won’t have 2022 numbers for a few months, but Alibaba has maintained a 60% share of all China e-commerce sales, with second-place JD.com usually coming in around 20%.

A slow-growth economy might not be a damper. Single’s Day is still the most important sales day of the year. It is still the best time to launch a new product or promotion. Let’s face it, U.S. retailers do not abandon Xmas sales in an economic slowdown.

But retailers will need to adjust their strategies. Single’s Day is no longer just one day, in an acknowledgement of a maturation of the market. Pre-sales started on October 24, which allowed consumers to load their carts. Then a first-phase sales period ran November 1-3, which allowed brands to test and adjust for the big day on November 11.

Also, membership programs (sometimes called loyalty programs) continue to gain strength among Chinese consumers and drive brand behavior. In the U.S. we know this architecture most commonly though airline frequent flier programs, but many other brands offer similar programs of benefits that scale with increased purchases.

The benefit to the brand is that it can evaluate the customer on the basis of long-term value. The benefit to the consumers is that they receive ongoing benefits and discounts. How is it working? On November 1, day one of the first phase, 82 brands surpassed 100 million yuan (about $13 million) in sales from their members, including Nike, P&G, L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, and Uniqlo. On the same day, 2,700 brands saw their members contribute more than 50% of their sales.

Alibaba has its own VIP membership program. It requires 57,000 yuan (around $8,000) in annual purchases to join. Unlike Amazon Prime, Tmall merchants can also market directly to VIP members. For example, Mars has crafted a special gift box of its Dove chocolate bars exclusively for the VIP members.

But brands should realize the television show is on pause. It’s not the right moment for splash and bling. What does this mean?

Smart brands optimize. Singles’ Day will see growth this year, but not as much growth as in past years. That is an argument for calibrating your efforts, but not for retreating from the market.

We are also seeing brands pivot from an exclusive focus on sales to also look at customer value. Over the long run, brand positioning and customer acquisition probably have greater value for the brand than sales alone, increasingly making this the goal for Singles’ Day.

Whatever the sales, this Singles’ Day will boast 290,000 brands, making it the largest merchant presence in history. There will be 200 new luxury brands alone, with 100,000 new luxury products.

The bottom line: smart brands take Singles’ Day seriously, even if year-on-year growth will not hit the peaks of previous years.