Five Takeaways From Alibaba's Record-Busting $9.3 Billion Shopping Fest

Nearly 43% of Sales Came From Mobile During World's Biggest E-Commerce Holiday

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Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's ambitions seem limitless: Bigger, more mobile, more global. During its just-ended annual e-commerce holiday, Alibaba set a new record, selling $9.3 billion in merchandise in a 24-hour festival.

The figure for the 11/11 sale, named for its date, Nov. 11, topped the 2013 record of $5.8 billion. That's way more than everything people bought on their computers during the five-day U.S. Thanksgiving holiday last year that included both Black Friday and Cyber Monday ($5.3 billion, according to ComScore.)

So what are the big takeaways?

Size matters

Alibaba started small in founder Jack Ma's apartment, but now everything the company does is larger than life. In September, it broke the record for the biggest initial public offering, at $25 billion, in New York.

The company brought more than 600 reporters to its headquarters in Hangzhou, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, and flashed real-time sales figures at them on a giant screen.

Its news releases abound with huge figures: There are more than 1 billion product listings on Alibaba's platforms, which include Tmall (a giant online shopping center where brands have digital storefronts) and Taobao (similar to eBay). And more than 27,000 brands participated in the sale.

Jack Ma is the Steve Jobs of China

The big buzz of the night was whether Mr. Ma would appear. After security guards swept the room, Mr. Ma got a rock-star welcome, with the crowd rushing the stage to photograph him. He's revered in China for turning a local underdog into a giant with a market value bigger than Amazon and Facebook.

But the former English teacher, wearing a simple green sweater, injected some modesty into the proceedings: He said very big sales would make him nervous because of the impact on logistics and deliveries.

"The most difficult time will come in the next few days," Mr. Ma said. He added that he doesn't have time for online shopping himself – family members bought his shoes. (Scroll down to watch scenes from the Alibaba campus.)

Mobile has momentum

Every year, Alibaba gets more mobile sales on 11/11, sometimes called Double Eleven or Singles Day. In 2012, the figure was 5%, and last year 21%. This year it was nearly 43% after Alibaba encouraged brands and merchants to give an 80-cent discount for buying on mobile.

In China, the stakes to capture mobile consumers are huge, Many people are going online for the first time on a smartphone, not a desktop. Internet penetration in the country of 1.3 billion is 47%, so there's big room for growth. And Alibaba and rival Tencent, which has a hot chat app, WeChat, are battling to win over Chinese mobile consumers.

McCann Worldgroup Shanghai's print campaign for Alibaba shopping platform Tmall.
McCann Worldgroup Shanghai's print campaign for Alibaba shopping platform Tmall.

Chinese brands win

Many big Western brands are on Tmall, where you can buy everything from Huggies diapers to the Apple iPhone 6s to Adidas sneakers to Costco dried cranberries. But the top sellers were local brands.

Xiaomi, the local maker of sleek and cheap smartphones and other electronics devices, was No. 1. Just four years old, it's already the No. 3 smartphone player worldwide. Another smartphone brand, Huawei, was No. 2, while Haier, the Chinese appliance maker, was No. 3.

Alibaba has global ambitions but is laying low in the U.S. -- for now

Consumers worldwide could buy goods from Chinese merchants for the first time via the company's AliExpress platform (that sale started later and its full results have not yet been tallied.) Mr. Ma said the event needs a few more years to become truly global: "This is only the beginning."

China is the world's No. 1 e-commerce market now, after surpassing the United States last year, according to Mintel. Alibaba owns a small U.S. e-commerce site called 11 Main, but it didn't take part in the discount sale.

Joe Tsai, Alibaba's executive vice chairman, said the focus now is bringing goods from U.S. merchants to Chinese consumers, though targeting U.S. shoppers could be interesting later on.

The industry is buzzing about how and when that might happen. Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru just advised people to watch out for an Alibaba marriage with eBay, probably in 2016 at the soonest.