Alibaba Group is reporting a roaring start for its annual Singles' Day online shopping extravaganza. The company says it racked up $7.2 billion in sales within the first two hours of the 24-hour event, defying a slowdown in both e-commerce growth and the broader Chinese economy.
But even the world's largest shopping event, which easily exceeds Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the U.S., was briefly overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.
At a press conference preceding the Chinese sales spree, Alibaba Group's vice chairman Joe Tsai was asked how a Trump presidency might affect Alibaba and its e-commerce empire, given that the real estate developer-turned-Republican standard bearer has promised steep tariffs on Chinese-made goods, which many predict would kick off a trade war.
"China is going to be and already is the source of consumer demand and the source of capital for America," Tsai said, according to the Wall Street Journal, which was in attendance at the event in Shenzhen. "So if you're the American president, you have to pay a lot of attention to that because your job is to create a lot of jobs in American society. And if you don't have Chinese consumers being engaged and buying American products, and Chinese investors can't invest in the United States, and create more American jobs, then you'd be in trouble."
Several Western celebrities didn't need any convincing of the growing clout of the Chinese consumer. Actress Scarlett Johansson, soccer star David Beckham, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and pop-rock band One Republic all joined Alibaba founder Jack Ma to headline the e-commerce giant's "sales countdown" show Thursday night. A hybrid spectacle combining elements of a pop concert with a variety show, the New Year's Eve countdown and the Home Shopping Network, Alibaba's gala is broadcast on live television across China, building up to midnight, when the company launches cut-rate sales across its services. This year's event was held in a 60,000-seat stadium in southern China. Pop star Katy Perry also was scheduled to perform, but backed out at the last minute citing a "family emergency."
According to China's People's Daily newspaper, Singles' Day was invented in the 1990s as an alternate to Valentine's Day - the date on which it is held - 11/11 - selected as the loneliest of numbers. In 2009, Alibaba struck on the ingenious marketing ploy of encouraging Chinese consumers to purchase themselves a treat, or several, on Singles' Day. Alibaba's first Singles' Day promotion, designed to drum up sales for the company's upstart Tmall service (Amazon with Chinese characteristics), scored $7.7 million in revenue. Last year's gala, which featured appearances by Kevin Spacey and Daniel Craig, generated an astonishing $14.3 billion in sales volume.
Sales this year are on track to set a new record, Alibaba says. The company has highlighted Singles' Day as an example of the synergies that can be achieved between its core e-commerce business and fast-growing film business subsidiary.
The best-selling goods so far this year include Apple iPhones, Nike and Adidas apparel and Haier appliances, according to Alibaba.