SHANGHAI -- Daniel Craig, Kevin Spacey, and a galaxy of Chinese celebrities helped boost China’s annual Singles' Day online shopping festival to record sales Wednesday. The event, originated by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and aimed at young single people, is now in its sixth year of luring Internet users with 24 hours of discounted shopping. This year, Alibaba and its rival JD.com have both added their own television galas to ensure the festival (known in Chinese as the "Double 11" because of its date) lives up to predictions of record sales, despite the recent slowdown in the country’s economy.
Alibaba’s live TV gala from Beijing’s Water Cube was directed by China’s most commercially successful movie director, Feng Xiaogang, and featured appearances by Craig, U.S. pop star Adam Lambert, South Korean pop idol Rain, and Chinese movie star Vicki Zhao Wei. It was targeted squarely at young shoppers staying up late to start buying as the clock struck midnight. And just 12 minutes and 28 seconds after the festival began, the big screen on the stage announced that Alibaba’s Tmall e-commerce site had already sold more than 10 billion yuan (around $1.5 billion) worth of goods -- hitting the mark in less than a third of the time it had taken the previous year.
“Let’s keep going,” added a slogan on the screen -- and shoppers appear to have heeded the advice. By the half-hour mark, Alibaba's sales had reached 20 billion yuan; 45 minutes later they had hit 30 billion yuan ($4.5 billion). After surpassing the previous year's total of $9.3 billion by noon local time, sales reached $12 billion by around 8 p.m., with four hours still to go, Alibaba announced. The company said the figures were better than expected, according to Shanghai-based news website the Paper, with 70 percent of purchases made from mobile devices.
A specially made trailer for the online gala, featuring Kevin Spacey reprising his role as U.S. President Frank Underwood in the Netflix series "House of Cards," and addressing Chinese shoppers from the "Oval Office," also attracted the attention of many Internet users -- not least for its possibly ironic reference to Underwood being unable to shop online himself, due to what he said were firewalls affecting the White House's computer network.
But with 45 million people simultaneously trying to access Tmall, which hosts online stores for many major Chinese and international brands, some Chinese users were also unable to make their purchases in the first hour. Some Tmall customers received a message that said: “We're very busy, and the system’s very tired, please try again later.” Brands including Zara and Uniqlo sold out of many goods in the first hour, the Paper reported, while major Chinese electronics retailer Suning (recently bought by Alibaba) saw orders rise almost 400 percent in the first hour compared to the previous year.
With China's ruling Communist Party currently in the midst of a campaign against excess, greed and corruption, some official media raised questions about an event billed by Tmall as a “crazy shopping festival for all the nation’s citizens." "Don’t let the Double 11th become a festival of fake goods," warned a commentary in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper. It quoted recent official data showing that some 40 percent of goods sold online in China are poor quality or fake -- and asked whethere online retailers were “raising prices before discounting them” for the festival. “All kinds of fakes and price deception lie in wait online,” it added.
Other Chinese media also spoke of the pain behind the cheering -- with many referring to China’s online shoppers by their nickname the “hand-choppers” -- a phrase denoting someone who spends too much money then regrets it later.
But not all official media opposed the event: Alibaba’s gala was shown live on Hunan province's popular satellite TV station, taking a 28 percent share of the national audience, and state broadcaster CCTV3 showed the rival gala organized by JD.com. And an op-ed piece in the official Global Times suggested that the Singles’ Day festival, set up by private companies, revealed the evolution of a new driving force in China’s economy and society.
Such comments are a reminder of the importance of new areas growth as China's economy slows (GDP growth fell to 6.9 percent in the third quarter, its slowest level in six years) -- and of the growing influence of the tastes and interests of a young generation accustomed to using the Internet:
“Many young people say that one of their favorite hobbies is shopping, and when they talk about shopping they mostly mean online,” Xiaojing Huang, a consumer expert at Yang Design in Shanghai told International Business Times. “People born in the 1980s and '90s are the main consumers in China now -- and for them this festival is an emotional release. It makes them feel empowered when they buy something they want, something they wouldn’t normally buy in everyday life.”
Chinese media said the high sales figures and galaxy of stars involved were also a sign of the increasing ambition and pulling power of Jack Ma’s Alibaba -- which has invested billions of dollars in a range of businesses since its successful listing on the New York Stock Exchange last year. (Last week it announced a plan to buy out China’s biggest online video streaming service Youku Tudou.) Alibaba recently announced sales growth of more than 30 percent in the second quarter of the year, despite the economic slowdown.
The Chinese government has said that consumption and the Internet will be key to the country’s attempts to move away from low-end export-focused manufacturing. But consumer confidence has slipped in recent months according to several surveys -- and some experts say that a boom in online sales will not compensate for other problems -- while the rapid spread of online shopping is also a challenge for China’s still expanding number of brick-and-mortar shopping malls, some of which are struggling due to a lack of sales.