Retailer rakes in $2 million in 13 minutes thanks to Chinese shopping festival

By Dana McCauley

E-retailer's Singles' Day sales have become a gauge for health of Chinese economy
Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Photo / AP
Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Photo / AP

The world's biggest shopping festival posted $1.3 billion (US$1 billion) of sales within the first five minutes, and the clock is still ticking.

Alibaba Group's 11.11 extravaganza - Singles' Day - which kicked off at midnight local time in Shenzhen, is expected to break last year's $14.3 billion record as Chinese shoppers rush to get their hands on a bargain.

And Australian retailers have been among the winners, with Chemist Warehouse leading the way after selling almost $2 million worth of stock in the first 13 minutes of the 24-hour sale, which is still under way.

While the clock started ticking at 3am Sydney time on most of Alibaba's platforms, shoppers must wait until 7pm on Friday to access bargain on Aliexpress - the English-language eBay rival known for its cheap electronics, toys, fast fashion and smart phone accessories.

OPENING NIGHT GALA

The excitement of Chinese shoppers was palpable at Thursday night's Gala countdown to the start of sales, a star-studded event at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Center.

Thousands of online shoppers and merchants crowded into the stadium at 8pm local time to be a part of the spectacle, orchestrated by Hollywood producer David Hill.

Audience members were waving glow sticks, shaking their phones in a bid to win prizes and tapping screens while being regaled by an endless parade of performers and games. Chinese opera and pantomime, kids' performers and pop stars shared the stage with international stars in what Alibaba executives describe as "the future of retail".

While headline act Katy Perry pulled out at the last minute, citing a "family emergency", there were plenty of local and international stars on hand.

Victoria and David Beckham appeared on stage at the televised Gala, with the fashionista launching a new pair on sunglasses "that I have designed exclusively for China", and her footballer husband promoting his whisky.

Victoria's Secret models Josephine Skriber, Alessandra Ambrosio and Sui He strutted their stuff, while China's favourite basketballer, American Kobe Bryant, joined in a game in where contestants threw blocks into a moving tractor.

The future of retail is China, it's not anywhere else. What is unique here is that shopping has become entertainment.
Joe Tsai, Alibaba vice chairman

Hamming it up for the audience, Bryant appeared to struggle to score a slam dunk, and good-humouredly answered questions about what items he liked to buy online ("basketballs for the kids").

While a lot of the action was lost in translation to visiting media - especially the comic routines - the crowd loved it.

Close to midnight, Alibaba founder Jack Ma himself appeared inside a box on stage and performed a series of magic tricks, culminating in the evening's big celebrity reveal, when he made Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson appear on stage.

'THE FUTURE IS HERE'

The 11.11 sale began as a promotion on Alibaba's Tmall online marketplace in 2009, when Ma came up with the idea of having a promotion on Singles Day, an unofficial Chinese holiday celebrating single people.

Now it is bigger than America's Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined; last year, sales were up 55 per cent on the 2014 results.

Ma has made clear his vision of capturing the hearts and minds of shoppers around the world, with expansion plans in South-East Asia and a new office in Melbourne supporting Australian businesses to reach Chinese consumers.

"You're looking at the future of retail," Alibaba Vice Chairman Joe Tsai told media at the start of the festival.

You're looking at the future of retail.

"The future of retail is China, it's not anywhere else. What is unique here is that shopping has become entertainment."

Making retail fun was the key to selling to Chinese millennials, who made up three-quarters of Alibaba's users, Tsai said.

"In the West, when you log onto Amazon, it's a chore - you want to get out of there as soon as possible; you don't want to stay on the site," he said.

Young people wanted to share their shopping baskets with their friends, he said, and were embracing the "gamification" of shopping, with interactivity via apps and integrated virtual reality sales.

For all its dazzle, though, Alibaba's 11.11 festival has drawn controversy around how it accounts for purchases, with the US Securities and Exchange Commission currently examining data from last year's promotion after concerns were raised that the total may include sales faked by third-party merchants or transactions that haven't been paid for.

Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai has said the company is co-operating with the regulator and sharing information.

- news.com.au

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