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The Single Biggest Shopping Day? Nov. 11, in China

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3 days ago
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BEIJING—Created as a gimmick by online-retail giant Alibaba a decade ago, “Singles Day” has entrenched itself on the Chinese calendar as a hybrid of Black Friday and Super Bowl Sunday—a colossal opportunity for both shops and shoppers.

This year’s Nov. 11 festival of consumption is expected to be bigger than ever—and so are the headaches that come with it.

Retailers fighting to be heard above the din have blanketed billboards and social-media sites to promote the likes of half-price sneakers and discounted jewelry. Government regulators, fearing what an advertiser might do to stand out, have issued extra warnings against misleading or vulgar ads.

For hundreds of millions of shoppers, it is a big enough challenge just to keep track of the sales.

Chasing coupons for products from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and rival JD.com Inc., Peng Yang joined 11 different groups on the WeChat messaging app. The more WeChat friends she persuades to join her, the more coupons she gets.

“I feel so addicted,” said the 25-year-old human-resources consultant in Shenzhen, who estimates she has dragged in dozens of people.

“Some of them must find me very annoying,” she said.

Shoppers should be “thick-skinned” when showing friends with invitations, JD’s partner Fenxiang advised via its WeChat program. It also recommends dealing with complaints in private instead of in group chats, to avoid losing members.

Singles Day was dreamed up in 2009 by Alibaba Chief Executive Daniel Zhang, who also took over as executive chairman after co-founder Jack Ma retired in September. It was intended as a sort of anti-Valentine’s Day—an occasion for bachelors and bachelorettes to splurge on themselves. The date was chosen because it is written with four ones.

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The promotion contributed to making Alibaba China’s most valuable company, with roughly two-thirds of the country’s e-commerce market. Its sales last Singles Day hit $30.8 billion, up 27% from 2017 and more than U.S. retailers sold online on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. This year the company aims to raise up to $15 billion in a secondary listing in Hong Kong soon after Singles Day, according to people familiar with the matter.

Other retailers don’t want to be left out of Singles Day mania. “If you’re a brand with any ambition, you have to participate,” said Declan Kearney, Asia managing director for Edge by Ascential, an e-commerce data and analytics company that helps major brands on Singles Day.

While some retailers slash prices by 50% or more, Mr. Kearney recommends that well-known companies limit discounts to 15% to 20%. “If you’re a brand like Nike, you are compelled to offer a discount, but the key is not to get in a price war and not devalue your premium image,” he said.

It isn’t only retailers that seek the Singles Day spotlight. A chicken farm in Jiangsu province aims to supply 1 million eggs for Alibaba on Nov. 11, a local newspaper reported. Real-estate company Evergrande says it is slashing commissions for homes sold that day.

Regulators are jumping in, too. The State Administration for Market Regulation met dozens of e-commerce businesses in Alibaba’s home city of Hangzhou over concerns about the dramatically intensified competition during the period, warning against “improper eyeball-catching promotion and illegal practices.”

The National Radio and Television Administration asked local regulators to closely monitor ads, as well as online infomercials. These have become a popular way to promote products; one 27-year-old man became an internet celebrity when he tested hundreds of lipstick shades during one live show. It won him a nickname: “Iron Lips.”

While Alibaba is expected to sell even more on Nov. 11 than it did last year, it is hard to extrapolate too much about the Chinese economy from that figure. Singles Day sales actually begin weeks in advance, with Nov. 11 the climax.

Still, Alibaba’s figures from the day could provide a clue about how much disposable income Chinese consumers are willing to part with. Online retailers focus on promoting discretionary products, such as cosmetics, rather than daily staples.

“If the growth rate is below 20%, it’ll be a huge surprise and could be a sign of deceleration,” said Steven Zhu, an analyst at Pacific Epoch; over 25% would indicate positive momentum. “It’s more of a vote of confidence in the economy.”

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