We went to Alibaba’s 24-hour shopping extravaganza that is like nothing in America, featuring a Mariah Carey performance and an online-shopping-themed Cirque du Soleil act. Here’s what it reveals about the future of retail.

Singles Day is a shopping event unlike anything else in the world. Alibaba

SHANGHAI, China – I’ve experienced the stampedes of Black Friday shoppers. I survived the Prime Day outage of 2018. And, like an increasing number of Americans, I’ve checked deals on my iPhone during Thanksgiving dinner.

But I have never seen a shopping event quite like Alibaba’s Singles Day: 24 hours of massive sales, overwhelming festivities, and, bizarrely enough, Mariah Carey.

In the hours before Sunday, November 11, 2018, Alibaba kicked off its 10th year of Singles Day festivities in Shanghai. Twenty-four hours later, the Chinese e-commerce giant reported that customers spent $US30.8 billion, or almost three times as much as the previous year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday shoppers spent combined.

This year, shoppers spent $US35.8 billion on Singles Day.

I had the good fortune to be in Shanghai for the entire thing in 2018, witnessing the most over-the-top, futuristic, and exhausting shopping celebration I have ever seen.

Here’s what it was like to take part in Alibaba’s Singles Day, as well as what it means for the future of the retail industry:

Singles Day kicks off with a four-hour “gala.” Imagine Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had quadruplets with Prime Day, and you’ve got the general idea.


Most people watch the gala – basically a variety show featuring singers, performers, and Allen Iverson overseeing a basketball competition – on TV or on their phones.

People on their phones can shop deals on Alibaba sites such as Taobao and Tmall as they watch the show.

I was, however, actually at the gala — and experiencing the side effects of a mix of jet lag, cold medicine, and a truly wild production.


Sitting with other reporters and Alibaba communications staffers, I was immediately overstimulated, even without the ability to shop online.

The drama is intentional. Alibaba has worked to transform Singles Day from a day of deals to what the company’s chief marketing officer, Chris Tung, called a sort of Christmas for brands and customers.

Cirque du Soleil performed an online-shopping-themed act at Alibaba’s Singles Day gala. Alibaba

“It has evolved dramatically over the last 10 years to become a true festival,” Tung told me the weekend before the 2018 Singles’ Day event.

Among the celebrities at the gala, at least one was doing double duty as an Alibaba merchant: Miranda Kerr.


Kerr launched her skincare brand, KORA Organics, on Alibaba’s Tmall in 2018.

“It’s such a unique event that combines shopping and entertainment in a way that I haven’t seen before,” Kerr told me.

Our interview was conducted via telephone, with me sitting in the back of a parked car 200 feet from where Kerr was backstage at the gala. Again, it was a hectic scene before the gala even started.

In the arena, fans lapped up the action.


Boy bands!

Romantic duets!

An endless stream of celebrities!

Considering that Alibaba kicked off the gala only two years prior, in 2016, it was slightly shocking how much enthusiasm and star power the company packed in.

Three hours in, the performances just kept coming. Alibaba

It isn’t uncommon for American retail giants to get celebrities to perform at events like investor days – stars at Walmart’s shareholders event have included Katy Perry and James Corden – but with the potential exception of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I had never seen something like this.

And that was before Mariah Carey showed up.


But alas, I had already left the gala before the great diva performed.

I had moved on to the nearby media centre, where a robot was mixing cocktails and coffees.


Alibaba’s showiness didn’t stop with the gala. Hundreds of journalists from around the world were invited to report from the media centre, which also served as a showcase for Alibaba’s various tech innovations.

In addition to making lattés, these robots could bring food to tables in restaurants and deliver room service in hotels.


The waiter bots are already in use in restaurants in locations of Hema, Alibaba’s supermarket chain.

Additionally, the robots were almost uniformly cute – crucial to gaining customers’ trust.

However, the robots aren’t the main event.


That would be the mega-screen displaying GMV, or gross merchandise volume.

In other words, the screen keeps track of how much money is being spent in online sales through various Alibaba platforms on Singles Day.

An emcee of sorts counts down until midnight. Then 11/11 finally begins.


It was a swift start. With sales from preloaded shopping carts going through in the seconds after midnight, the GMV figure exploded.

Within 10 minutes, Alibaba hit $US4.68 billion, already eclipsing estimated sales figures for Amazon’s 36-hour Prime Day event.

Alibaba continued to highlight massive numbers well after I stumbled back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning.


Alibaba’s emphasis on GMV is a blessing and a curse for the company, according to some experts.

While the sheer magnitude of the figure helps generate attention, the company’s self-celebration doesn’t allow for much wiggle room if growth slows.

“The whole world is looking at it – which puts a lot of pressure” on Alibaba, Daniel Zipser, a McKinsey & Company senior partner who leads its consumer and retail practice in Greater China, told me.

Yet 11/11 must go on.


For me as a reporter, November 11 was a blur of visiting Starbucks (an Alibaba partner), speaking with certain executives, and waiting for some others to show up.

Jack Ma, Alibaba’s famous founder, showed up at the media centre both nights but didn’t speak to journalists. Instead, he merely smiled at the GMV screen, snapping a photo on his phone as the company crossed another landmark.

Through it all, the GMV chart just kept climbing.

At the end of the day, Alibaba set another Singles Day record. But more than that, the company did it with a sense of drama that no modern American company could replicate.


The GMV marker topped $US30 billion at the end of Singles Day 2018. For comparison, online sales on Black Friday reached $US5 billion in 2017, according to Adobe Analytics data, while Cyber Monday sales were roughly $US6.6 billion.

As frantic Black Friday masses lose momentum to online shopping, Alibaba has figured out how to bring the hectic overstimulation to e-commerce.

Alibaba is increasingly emphasising its plans to bridge the gap between online and offline retail with initiatives like the adorable robot waiter. American companies would be well-served to pay attention to the spectacle that is likely to follow.