China on Thursday held a subdued version of its annual “Single’s Day” shopping spree, shorn of the usual boasting on sales volume as the country’s chastened e-commerce sector reels under a government crackdown on platforms like Alibaba.
The world’s biggest shopping festival has for years been accompanied by aggressive promotions and breathless hourly updates by Alibaba from midnight onwards detailing ever-rising sales figures that dwarf the annual GDP of many nations.
But there were no rolling tallies or triumphant comments by executives from major platforms as of Thursday morning, and state media have described a quieter event this year in the wake of Beijing’s campaign to rein in Big Tech.
“Single’s 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 11-day promotion culminating on November 11, while some retailers and platforms have started offering discounts, special offers and pre-sales as early as October.
Thanks to the Chinese consumer’s predilection for smartphone-enabled bargain-hunting, “Single’s Day” now dwarfs the pre-Christmas “Black Friday” promotion in the US.
Platforms operated by Alibaba and its closest competitor JD.com reported combined sales of US$115 billion during last year’s promotion.
The festival has gradually become a closely watched gauge of consumer sentiment in the world’s second-largest economy, but it was unclear on Thursday when any sales figures might be released.
E-commerce platforms are keeping their heads down due to the government scrutiny, which targets alleged abuse of user data and monopolistic business practices, but also appears motivated in part by wider concerns the Big Tech had become too powerful and unregulated.
Some early indicators, however, had pointed to continued robust spending, with Alibaba saying hundreds of brands had gotten off to a stronger start from Nov 1 compared to the previous year, while providing no figures.
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.
E-commerce has aided greatly in this effort, and Chinese e-commerce executives have said the pandemic has boosted online purchases further, partly by discouraging in-person shopping in crowded stores.
Alibaba fell out of favour late last year after billionaire co-founder Jack Ma issued an unprecedented criticism of Chinese government regulators.
The company was fined US$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 by e-commerce leaders that are seen as abusing their dominant market positions, such as banning merchants from selling their products on rival platforms or using algorithms to bombard consumers with recommendations for further purchases.
Last weekend, the government issued special “Single’s Day” guidelines reminding platforms that misleading claims on discounts or on the efficacy of products, 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 Jiemian.com said in a recent report.