Double Eleven: the Chinese shopping festival that shows us the future of retail

Jack Ma, left, and Nicole Kidman at the Alibaba Double Eleven gala launch in Shanghai on Friday November 10. Photo: Supplied

Shanghai: For 24-hours this weekend, China shopped online like it had never shopped before.

The scale and the method – US$25.3 billion in purchases, 90 per cent made via mobile phone – could change the way the world shops.

On Saturday, Australia was the third-biggest overseas source of the products bought.

The Double Eleven festival was devised eight years ago by Alibaba as Singles Day, an anti Valentine’s day of big discounts at its e-commerce malls. But the world’s biggest online shopping event is best known in Australia for catapulting Australian vitamin and milk powder brands into the fortune-making Chinese market.

Chinese film star Fan Bingbing at an event for vitamin company Swisse in ShanghaiChinese film star Fan Bingbing at an event for vitamin company Swisse in Shanghai Photo: Supplied

Double Eleven far outgrew its origins this year, as sales leapt 39 per cent compared to 2016.

Alipay, Alibaba’s digital payments arm, processed 1.48 billion payment transactions, up 41 per cent, a sign of how Chinese shoppers have dumped cash to use their mobile phone as a wallet.

The Chinese railway put on extra bullet trains to assist the delivery of 812 million parcels, such is the Chinese shoppers expectation of fast delivery.

The warm up was a four-hour televised concert with international singers Jessie J and Will Pharrell, actress Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger) and tennis star Maria Sharapova.

Jessie J performs at Double Eleven concert in ShanghaiJessie J performs at Double Eleven concert in Shanghai Photo: Supplied

Nicole Kidman appeared just before midnight, as the sale started, introducing Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, in his own kung fu film.

But the TV coverage was secondary to what really drives Chinese consumers – live streaming and online influencers.

Vitamin brand Swisse took Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing to a glitzy Shanghai shopping mall, where the fans crowded five storeys take photos to share on social media.

It worked. Swisse, taken over by a Chinese company in 2015, emerged as the top-selling product on Double Eleven.

Blackmores pushed a million banner ads to Huawei mobile phone users and erected a billboard in Times Square New York. But Blackmores Asia managing director Peter Osborne says its centrepiece was a three-hour livestream with a female online influencer in Alibaba’s Tmall.

For Bindaree Beef, an abattoir from Inverell in NSW, the aim was not so much a sales boost but to put its name in front of “a couple of million people”.

“It has been the hottest event in China for the last five years. This is an opportunity where we can create a big awareness,” says Bindaree’s commercial chief for China, Ambrose Cheung.

Bindaree sold a 51 per cent stake to Chinese company Shimao Property, and wants to increase e-commerce sales to Chinese consumers from 10 per cent of its business to a third.

Alibaba Australia managing director Maggie Zhou says Australia is the best performing country for selling vitamins and beef to Chinese consumers on Tmall.

As Double Eleven ticked on Saturday, an international media centre had the appearance of a casino, with glowing numbers spinning across the big screen as the sales clocked-up in real-time, breaking ever more records.

Touch screens produced data, by Chinese city, of the age profile and gender of the biggest shoppers. And the cumulative parcels mileage – 114 million kilometres – at 11.08pm.

Alibaba says this is its core business: big data. Double Eleven is fun for the shoppers, but it is really a test for its technology systems. And at even 325,000 transactions per second, the system did not crash. The first package arrived in 12 minutes.

Alibaba collects data from the 500 million consumers who use its products, and says it wants to use that data to change the shopping experience.

“We know a lot. We can model the lifestyle of 500 million people,” says chief marketing officer Chris Tung.

E-commerce has devastated traditional retail stores in China, but Alibaba claims it can bring the smartphone addicted shopper back into the real world.

“Bricks and mortar retailers are suffering today, but there is a way to make them just as successful as online,” says Tung. The hook for retailers to sign up is the data.

Fifty million Chinese shoppers played “catch the cat” during Double Eleven, a mobile phone game to lure them out into physical stores.

Around 100,000 physical stores were turned into “smart stores”, offering digital gimmicks such as augmented reality makeup mirrors.

Fashion chains offer shoppers a virtual change room – where people can digitally try on clothes without the effort of getting changed. Facial recognition cameras and technology in-store allows consumers to search online for extra colours not in stock. But it also tracks what shoppers do.

The camera guesses what age they are. What items do they pick up? Who are they?

If a shopper has signed up to the retailer’s loyalty club, the store will recognise them, and watch, every time they walk through its door.

On the question of privacy, Tung says the “personalisation” technology the company has started offering to retailers is no different to targeted advertising experienced on Google and Facebook.

“Why should that personalisation only be online?” he says.

Marketers may want to target shopper demographics down to a particular store.

Alibaba “won’t cross the line”. “We will never release individual data about anyone,” he says.

By Kirsty Needham


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