Singles’ Day is the biggest shopping event in the world. But this year e-commerce has less ‘gunpowder’

China has held a subdued version of its annual Singles' Day shopping spree, shorn of the usual boasting on sales volume as the country's chastened e-commerce sector kept a lower profile amid a government crackdown on platforms such as Alibaba.

Key points:China's Singles' Day dwarfs the pre-Christmas Black Friday promotion in the USThis year it has been somewhat subdued, however, as tech giants face official scrutinyBig tech's problems began last year when Alibaba founder Jack Ma criticised the government

The world's biggest shopping festival has for years been accompanied by aggressive promotions and breathless hourly updates by industry leader Alibaba detailing ever-rising sales figures equal to the annual GDP of many nations.

But there were no rolling tallies or triumphant comments by executives from major platforms as of midday Thursday (local time).

Singles' Day normally generates big headlines in China but it went virtually ignored by state media, with many state-run media outlets focusing instead on the 62nd anniversary of the founding of China's air force, which falls on the same date.

E-commerce giants keep their heads down

Chinese tech workers sit at computers surrounded by bright screens
Single's Day has a muted tone this year amid a regulatory crackdown on the technology industry.(AP: Andy Wong)

Singles' Day — so called for its 11.11 date — began more than a decade ago and for years was a one-day, 24-hour event.

But Alibaba and its rivals have expanded that out to an extended promotion from November 1 to 11, while some retailers and platforms offered discounts, special offers and pre-sales as early as October. 

Singles' Day dwarfs the pre-Christmas Black Friday promotion in the United States and has become a closely watched barometer of consumer sentiment in the world's second-largest economy.

How did China's Singles' Day become the world's biggest shopping event?Jack Ma points to sales figures on a big screen behind him. The figure says $17,139,475,552

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Platforms operated by Alibaba and its closest competitor reported combined sales of US$115 billion ($158 billion) last year.

But the usual buzz was muted this year with e-commerce platforms keeping their heads down owing to the government scrutiny.

The government has taken aim at alleged abuse of user data and monopolistic business practices by online giants, but also appears motivated in part by wider concerns that big tech had become too powerful and unregulated. 

Alibaba had said earlier that hundreds of brands had enjoyed a stronger start from November 1 compared with the previous year, but provided no figures.

An Alibaba spokesperson said figures would only be announced after the event's window closes.

LoadingGovernment pushes 'common prosperity' theme

The government scrutiny has rattled big players like Alibaba, Tencent, and JD, slicing billions of dollars of their equity values, but experts say the ruling Communist Party is not about to significantly hobble e-commerce.

The party is waging a long-term campaign to diversify China's economy away from an over-dependence on manufacturing, exports and government investment, toward a more market-based, consumer-driven model.

Tech giants have aided greatly in this effort, and Chinese executives have said the pandemic has boosted online purchases further, partly by discouraging in-person shopping in crowded stores.

But if Thursday is any indication, Singles' Day may be a much quieter event in future.

People walk with their shopping carts at a shopping area in Shanghai
Marketing for Single's Day in 2021 has been less aggressive.(Reuters: Aly Song)

The government is pushing a new "common prosperity" theme that takes aim at the super-rich and excessive corporate power, and espouses a more equitable distribution of China's economic gains.

Singles' Day's aggressive sales pitches and celebration of rampant consumerism may be viewed by the ruling Communist Party as conflicting with those objectives.

Big tech's troubles started late last year when Alibaba's billionaire co-founder Jack Ma issued an unprecedented criticism of Chinese government regulators.

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The company was fined $2.75 billion, authorities postponed a record-breaking IPO by its financial affiliate Ant Group, and other tech giants were hit with fines and business restrictions.

The government has targeted practices used by Alibaba and such as banning merchants from selling their products on rival platforms, and their use of algorithms to bombard consumers with recommendations for further purchases.

Last weekend, the government issued special Singles' Day guidelines reminding platforms that misleading claims on discounts or product efficacy, manipulating sales figures, and selling counterfeit products, were all strictly forbidden.

Chinese state media have reported less aggressive promotional activity this year.

"Although the excitement remains, the smell of gunpowder among the e-commerce giants is significantly weakened," respected financial-news website said in a recent report.


Posted 11 Nov 202111 Nov 2021Thu 11 Nov 2021 at 9:40am, updated 11 Nov 202111 Nov 2021Thu 11 Nov 2021 at 9:54amShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp


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