After coronavirus, China’s answer to Black Friday and Cyber Monday aims to rescue retail

Cathy Tu, the 53-year-old owner of an education consulting company in Beijing, said she bought

Cathy Tu, the 53-year-old owner of an education consulting company in Beijing, said she bought winter clothes for her parents during the online sales. She said that in the wake of the pandemic, she is a little more careful with her spending.

“Before, I might have bought a few extra clothes for myself just because they were on discount,” she said. “This time, I bought things for family, and for myself, things that I needed.”

The sales fest, known as Singles Day, will go a long way toward helping retailers make up for losses earlier in the year — although it won’t get them all the way there, said Becky Han, associate director of China corporate research at Fitch Ratings. She expects China’s consumer market to finish the year with a low-single-digit sales decline.

“Heavy promotions are likely to drive up spending from the mass majority of middle-class households whose incomes are more affected by the pandemic,” she said.

The shopping carnival comes as Alibaba grapples with an array of regulatory issues besides the global economic downturn. On Tuesday, Beijing announced it is drawing up an antitrust law to curb the power of Internet giants — a development that caused Alibaba’s stock to plunge as much as 9 percent on Wednesday.

The regulatory scrutiny could mean headaches in coming months for Alibaba. For the moment, though, shoppers like Beijing resident Wang Yajing were enjoying the bargain hunting.

Wang, a 33-year-old documentary filmmaker, said she and many of her friends waited up past midnight to snag deals in the first minutes of Wednesday.

“You can put the stuff in your cart in advance, but you have to wait until after midnight to get the discounts,” she said. “I didn’t want to wake up the next morning to find they’d sold out.”

Wang said she ordered dried walnuts and other food for her mother, and household goods such as laundry detergent for herself.

Singles Day — so named because the date 11/11 resembles four singles — originated in China as a tongue-in-cheek celebration by young people of their single status. Since 2009, Alibaba has turned the day into a shopping extravaganza, with celebrity appearances (Katy Perry made a virtual appearance this year) and discounts on items as varied as flat-screen TVs and houses.

In this year’s Singles Day, Alibaba spotlighted several Western brands hoping for China sales to help them through the downturn. These included French luxury goods house Cartier and Grand Rapids, Mich.-based vacuum cleaner brand Bissell Homecare.

Duncan Clark, chairman of consulting firm BDA China, said the brisk Singles Day sales broadly reflected China’s economic recovery, which has been faster than in the United States and Europe.

“They’re talking about therapeutics in the West, but we are talking about retail therapy here,” said Clark, who lives in Beijing.

China’s e-commerce companies also took extra pains this year to ensure they could declare a successful Singles Day. Alibaba began Singles Day sales early on Nov. 1, stretching the occasion into a week and a half of promotions, and making it difficult to compare directly with last year’s performance.

Alibaba Vice President Liu Bo said at a news conference last month that the company was spending more on Singles Day this year than ever, with a whopping 4 billion yuan ($606 million) in cash vouchers for shoppers. Alibaba said Wednesday it had racked up $56 billion and counting in gross merchandise volume through this month’s promotions, with Apple, Nike and L’Oréal among the sales standouts.

Alibaba and JD.com have tried to draw consumers’ interest with live-streamed sales pitches and mobile games. From Alibaba, shoppers could earn coupons by watering a virtual plant or petting a cat, while JD.com shoppers could get discounts by feeding a virtual puppy on their phones.

Liu Hui, chief data officer of JD.com’s Big Data Research Institute, said in an interview Tuesday that the company has seen strong sales in health and wellness products this Singles Day, possibly an effect of the coronavirus pandemic. Sales of health supplements and treadmills rose this year from last.

“China’s consumers are more health-conscious now,” he said.

Ouyang Haotian, a 21-year-old college senior in Guangzhou, said he isn’t a big online shopper, but he joined in on Singles Day to buy an electric toothbrush.

“It was something I needed anyway, so I might as well get it on sale,” he said.

Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.

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