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Alibaba vs. Amazon And ‘Special Days’ – Who Wore It Better?

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We recently passed the auspicious day of 11/11 – which is considered lucky by the Chinese and has become very lucky for Chinese giant Alibaba. It created a holiday called “Singles Day,” which is basically an homage to self-gifting and an answer to Valentine’s Day for couples. The day was absurdly successful but received very little notice in the U.S. media.

Why?

As usual when the holiday season is rolling around, the U.S. media is filled with stories about Amazon- this week it’s all about the selection of “HQ2” which turned out to be 2 HQ2’s, in exactly the locations Scott Galloway predicted last February (though he didn’t see 2 HQ2’s coming) – the places CEO Jeff Bezos has homes. I’m not going to get into my disappointment over that process today, instead I’d like to spend a little virtual ink comparing Amazon’s specially created day “Prime Day” with Alibaba’s specially created day, “Single’s Day.”

What can you say about a retailer that generates $1.5 billion in sales in the first minute 28 seconds of the sales day? Or revenue of $30 billion in 24 hours on a day that ultimately means... nothing? Me, I just said, wow.

How did Prime Day compare? Amazon announced that shoppers purchased more than 100 million items, and it gave lots of specifics about aggregate increases over last year, the number of people participating across the globe and the types of products that those shoppers bought.

According to Statista, Amazon raked in $4.19 billion in sales on Prime Day in 2019, a hefty increase over 2017. But when you compare it to Singles Day, well… it just doesn’t sound like all that, does it?

Now, is there any significant difference between the two fake holidays? Prime Day happens at a time when retail traffic is generally pretty low – the middle of summer. And we’re talking a global phenomenon. Singles Day is a Chinese phenomenon that has not yet been exported to other countries – I might call it “self-gifting day” if it came to America. Much more festive than honoring being single, and why limit oneself? What WOULD happen if Alibaba could get its act together outside of China? What would happen to Amazon?

I sense some cracks in Amazon’s armor. Apparently, so does its CEO. Shortly before its 2 HQ2 announcement, Mr. Bezos addressed employees and argued that Amazon is not too big to fail. In fact, he said that one day Amazon WILL fail, and employees should stay hungry to postpone that inevitability. In fact, Mr. Bezos demonstrated some real self-awareness and even cited Sears as an example of a company that was the Amazon of its day and now is failing fast. This is true. Sears was, indeed, the Amazon of its time, and a series of unfortunate events have led it to its current somewhat tragic pass.

And so, Alibaba waits in the wings. In the US, we tend to have a very US-centric view of the world. We have been the world’s biggest market, are the home of the world’s most valuable brands, and it seemed for a long time that our hegemony would remain forever unchallenged. We look at the war between Amazon and Walmart waiting to declare a victor (honestly, with Walmart’s revenues 4x Amazon’s, is this even a debate?) Is Walmart too big to fail? How much headroom does Amazon really have, and will its fleet of airplanes help its retail operations become and remain profitable? I don’t know the answers to many of these both existential and pragmatic questions.

What I do know is that $30 billion dollars in a single day is a lot of revenue. I also know that Alibaba’s “New Retail” concept is helping terrestrial retailers modernize their operations even more than Amazon’s Cloud Services (AWS) are helping retailers in this country.

I also know that Alibaba made a hash out of its original foray into the US, it’s website 11main.com. That site was opened in 2014 and Alibaba shut it down in 2016. Do I think the company will make the same mistake again? I’m not sure. I do know that it has a LOT of headroom for growth even without coming to the US.

So, to quote Us Magazine, “Who wore it better?” Was the made-up holiday Singles Day more successful than made-up holiday Prime Day? Yes, it was. Alibaba wore it better. Is this a portent of things to come? I think it might be.

I strongly recommend all retailers subscribe to Alizila, Alibaba’s daily newsletter. I have had more than a few gasps over the things the company is doing in China.

And that’s why it’s always fun to be a retail observer and sometimes influencer... you never know where the next success is coming from. But man, is it fun to watch!

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Articles & Opinions November 20, 2018
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