Chinese internet giant Alibaba is usually associated with e-commerce, but it's also moving into movies and entertainment. So it's logical that Alibaba brought a show business aspect to its massive annual 24-hour online shopping festival this year. To kick off the sales, it hosted a celebrity-filled 3½ hour TV variety show featuring boy bands, divas, shiny costumes, magic tricks, banter and cameos by Daniel Craig and Kevin Spacey.
Alibaba Group's markdown event, known as Double 11 or Singles' Day, started at midnight and tallied up $3.9 billion in sales in the first hour. That's more than the $2.65 billion Adobe says was spent during all of Cyber Monday last year. And it's also about double what Alibaba logged in the same time period last year, which bodes well for consumer spending at a moment when brands are worried about China's slowing economy. More than 10,000 international brands are taking part in the sale, including Procter & Gamble, Burberry, Apple, Nike and Macy's.
Alibaba's variety program aired online and on a popular satellite TV station before the start of shopping at midnight. The show was directed by top moviemaker Feng Xiao Gang and starred an onslaught of mostly Chinese celebrities. Online, scalpers sold tickets for seats in the audience for up to $785.
In the first act, Taiwanese pop star Jolin Tsai burst onstage wearing gold lame, surrounded by male dancers in bondage-inspired gear and stiletto heels. Then the "Star Wars" Stormtroopers marched into the Water Cube, the Beijing Olympic venue where the event was filmed.
Adam Lambert performed his song "Ghost Town." Daniel Craig, in China promoting the latest James Bond film "Spectre," appeared onstage with Alibaba founder Jack Ma.
Kevin Spacey made a cameo as President Frank Underwood from "House of Cards," which is popular in China. He addressed Chinese shoppers by video from his faux Oval Office. But was he poking fun at Alibaba's reputation as a place to find knockoffs when he suggested people might buy a replica of the presidential desk or his character's class ring?
Periodically, viewers at home were prompted to shake their smartphones to try to win coupons for the sale, which popped up on their mobile shopping apps.
There are a few possible reasons Alibaba tied the shopping event to a televised show. It reaches Chinese consumers who are not yet shopping online. It reminds people of Alibaba's reach into entertainment; just last week the company said it was buying all of video platform Youku Tudou.
It creates advertising opportunities. Western brands including Columbia, Levi's, Budweiser and Corona bought ad time during the show.
And it kept people up until midnight, when the sales begin.
"I suppose there are a lot of people just killing time until the shopping," said Sara Zhao, a 25-year-old university employee reached by phone in Changchun, in northeastern China. She watched out of curiosity. Her takeaway: "It's basically a giant advertisement for shopping." She planned to buy some necessities during the sale, like tissues and toothpaste.
Alibaba's shopping event started in 2009 with 27 vendors; last year it logged $9.3 billion in sales. It was called Singles Day because the date – 11/11 – looked like four "bare branches," the Chinese expression for singles. It's not just for singles anymore, and many other e-commerce players have joined in the Nov. 11 shopping competition.
China's No. 2 e-commerce player, JD.com, has a partnership with Alibaba's rival internet giant Tencent; they worked together on another entertainment show airing at the same time as Alibaba's, a singing contest.
Curiously, forward-looking Alibaba took many cues from China's annual Lunar New Year variety show, which is broadcast every year on state television network CCTV and draws 700 million viewers. Despite its huge viewership, people often complain about how tedious the show is and see it as a relic from an age when people had few entertainment choices besides state TV. Last year internet users started a meme of photos of people dozing off while they watched.