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China's No. 2 E-Commerce Player Ups Its Game, Narrowing Gap With Alibaba

By Published on .

One of JD.com's Singles Day ads
One of JD.com's Singles Day ads Credit: JD.com

Saturday is China's gargantuan online shopping day, Singles Day, which is a lot bigger than Black Friday. The headlines will be dominated by news about Alibaba Group and the spending it inspires (last year, it tallied $17.8 billion in transactions in 24 hours.) But Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com is gaining ground with consumers and is making a big Singles Day marketing push, too.

JD.com, China's No. 2 e-commerce player, was known for years as an electronics retailer. But it has expanded into a seller of everything from imported foods to luxury cosmetics to iPhones. It has built a powerful coalition with two of its shareholders, Chinese internet giant Tencent and Walmart, whose online store in China is hosted on JD.com.

"They've got [Tencent's] WeChat and Walmart, the biggest retailer in the world – it's a pretty lethal combo," says Mark Tanner, the Shanghai-based founder and managing director of China Skinny, a marketing and research agency. "If anybody's going to knock Alibaba off their perch, it's going to be them."

Singles day

Singles Day has been a shopping day in China since 2009, when Alibaba turned a folk holiday for the unmarried into an excuse for the whole country to shop for deals online. Alibaba still has the biggest event – it's bringing Pharrell Williams and Maria Sharapova to Shanghai for a televised gala to kick off the sales. But other retailers have latched onto the event too, especially JD.com.

JD.com is using Singles Day ads to reshape its image from no-frills seller of electronics into something trendier and more fashionable. Spots by local independent local agency 180China show edgy-looking 20-somethings slouching through atmospheric pool halls and nightclubs. (Watch one ad here.) The message is that JD.com is a platform for discerning consumers looking for high-quality products.

JD.com's partnership with Tencent has also brought new data sharing with WeChat, the all-purpose app that has 963 million users, mostly in China. In time for Singles Day, WeChat social and demographic data is getting matched with purchasing data from JD.com, allowing for stronger predictions of who might want to buy what.

Playful ads for JD.com are running on WeChat that feature celebrities and animations; clicking on them takes you straight into JD.com's shop. Agency 180China says it created six ads for six days.

Separately, WeChat's social circles have amplified the message about Singles Day. People have been sharing a game where they ask friends to help them bargain down the price of a product – a Panasonic hair dryer, for example -- in hopes of getting it for free.

JD.com says it invested in every possible media – from WeChat to TV to subway stations across China -- for Singles Day, which is also called Double Eleven. "What we are doing is a playful interaction with our customers," JD.com VP Jipeng Men wrote in an email.

Evolving fast

JD.com had nearly 25 percent of the business-to-consumer market in China last year, while Alibaba's Tmall platform had almost 57 percent, according to China's iResearch. McKinsey & Co. predicts 19% growth for China's e-commerce market this year. But JD.com is growing faster: The value of items sold on JD.com in the most recent quarter was up 46% from the year earlier. JD.com has also gained traction with its own big sales event in June, tied to the anniversary of its founding.

JD.com was in this news for a few things this week besides Singles Day; during U.S. President Donald Trump's trip to China, JD.com announced a deal to buy $2 billion of U.S. goods, including beef and pork. And in New York, it it hosted a dinner for the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue in New York, where guests ranged from Anna Wintour to Nicki Minaj.

JD.com is increasingly looking toward luxury and fashion. It bought a $397 million stake this year in Farfetch, the luxury marketplace. And it also launched its own new luxury sales platform to compete with a similar offering from Alibaba. Called Toplife, it hosts brands including Emporio Armani, La Perla and Trussardi. Delivery people actually wear white gloves to drop packages off.

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