Alibaba's Singles' Day Is a Multi-Billion-Dollar Sales Juggernaut -- and You Could Build Your Own
Every day is a “National Day of Something” or some kind of holiday. For example, Nov. 8 is National Cappuccino Day, which many thousands of Americans will discover when they see the hashtag #NationalCappuccinoDay trending on Twitter, catch a coffee brand posting about it on Facebook or hear a TV show host cheerfully proclaim it.
These seemingly random days even occupy the calendar on traditional holidays such as Halloween (National Doorbell Day) and Thanksgiving (National Eat a Cranberry Day), sometimes with several sharing one date.
Add shopping days into the mix, and the date-pegged marketing opportunities begin to seem continuous. The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, is as recognized for big sales as it is for leftovers, Cyber Monday is gaining momentum and Small-Business Saturday is sandwiched between them.
Then there are international events, such as the annual Chinese ecommerce bonanza Singles' Day that occurs on Nov. 11, the same day as Veterans Day in the U.S. Singles' Day originated in the 1990s among students at China’s Nanjing University as a day to celebrate being single. In 2009, Chinese retailer Alibaba formalized Singles' Day as a shopping event for people to buy things for themselves, in contrast to all of the holidays that double as occasions to purchase gifts for loved ones.
Last year, Singles' Day sales on Alibaba’s sites totaled $17.8 billion, with $1.4 billion generated in the first seven minutes and $5 billion within the first hour. By comparison, combined online sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday totaled $6.8 billion in the U.S. in 2016, according to Adobe Digital Insights. Singles' Day has become the largest annual day for online shopping globally, and this year, Alibaba has launched a three-week “festival” with more than 140,000 merchants and even brick-and-mortar stores participating.
Alibaba and other participating companies didn’t invent the concept of Singles' Day, but they identified a cultural phenomenon and seized it. Meanwhile, Alibaba’s competitors, such as JD.com, which partners with Walmart, offers deals on Singles' Day. Earlier this year, JD.com created a shopping day of its own on Aug. 8, which has been compared to Amazon’s Prime Day.
As business leaders gear up for 2018, they should keep in mind that the calendar is filled with quirky holidays to capitalize on that competitors might not have on their radar. There’s room for companies to interpret and commemorate these holidays however they see fit -- or try to create new ones.
‘National Day of Anything’
Marketers and business leaders don’t have to wait passively for made-up holidays to start trending in their feeds. There’s a startup called National Day Calendar that not only collects all of this information, but decides which new days should be added. Many media outlets consult it religiously, and it issues press releases and other alerts.
Any company or organization can submit a new National Day for consideration. The National Day Calendar has a committee of four people who vet submissions, which recently surpassed 20,000 per year. In a given year, the committee votes to accept only about 30 submissions, each of which it must unanimously approve.
“Our slogan is, ‘Celebrate Every Day,’ so we try to look for things that are commonplace but important in our lives,” says Marlo Anderson, National Day Calendar's founder. “If there’s a great story behind it, then you have a much better chance of succeeding.”
One creative submission that Anderson says exemplifies what the committee looks for is National Doorbell Day, submitted by Ring, a company that makes smart doorbells. It coincides with Halloween, the day when doorbells get used most. Submissions they commonly receive that they don’t and can’t register are those recognizing a specific individual, e.g. “National Katherine Day.” Days recognizing birthdays, anniversaries or individuals require Congressional action.
An excuse to celebrate
Anderson owns three startups, and sometimes he uses National Days as part of their marketing efforts. He’s seen firsthand the way in which acknowledging a National Day can broaden the reach of a social media post, for example, and says that the day doesn’t even have to be directly relevant to a company for this strategy to work.
“Take National Doughnut Day,” Anderson says. “Why isn’t every tire company taking advantage of that, for example? What do we call the spare in our car? Everybody calls it a doughnut. They don’t even have to run specials on those days, they can just bring up the fact that National Doughnut Day could be that once-a-year time that you go check your spare to make sure it’s properly inflated.”
Of course, some consumers will expect deals and rewards on special days, according to Lisa Goller, a content marketing strategist who works with technology companies that serve the retail sector. But Anderson contends that businesses don’t have to offer discounts to get customers in the door on one of these holidays. In fact, he advises that businesses avoid them. A restaurant that sells hamburgers can simply encourage customers to come in to celebrate National Hamburger Day, and they will.
“People ask me all the time why this has become such a big deal,” Anderson says, noting that many people don’t question the legitimacy or origins of these holidays. “It’s a reason for people to go out and connect. Whether it’s just visiting with somebody over a cup of coffee, or if it’s Bobblehead Day, you realize that there’s a community of other people who love bobbleheads. And on social media, they show that they’ve been out celebrating, and it just builds on itself.”
Set up for success
Although Singles' Day has not gained traction in Western markets, that may change, Goller says. Awareness of the holiday may increase as more and more Western companies expand to Asia, which they are considering more and more given the “abysmal” state of the retail industry.
Part of the reason that many made-up holidays have become successful sales events, and ultimately cultural traditions, is because the marketing for them is so pervasive, Goller says. When the messaging around them is inescapable, they begin to seem worthy of consumers’ attention and participation.
“Retailers really capitalize on the power of now,” Goller says. “When they tie a sale to a single day, they capitalize on fear of missing out.” Whether it’s an opportunity to get a good deal or shop when all of their friends are, instilling this sense of urgency is crucial.
Goller offers tips to retailers who want to offer deals on non-traditional holidays. For one, she says, retailers who hope to create sales events should make sure that their purchasing channels work seamlessly for eager shoppers, from incorporating responsive web design on mobile to offering digital coupons via email or SMS to enabling mobile payments. They can also be proactive by making sure their website is equipped to handle increased traffic.
Companies can also leverage their data to prepare for sales events, Goller advises. They can examine their historical sales data to pinpoint hot-selling items for promotion, or to take stock of inventory to prepare for increased demand. It’s also wise for companies to look at competitive data to see how rivals price and source items and position themselves accordingly.
While Goller acknowledges that some consumers may grow tired of hearing about contrived celebrations and sales events day after day, she explains that they’re also always looking for the next big thing. By celebrating made-up holidays, businesses can leverage this insatiable desire for new experiences and information.
“Social media is 24/7, and there’s always a need to create content that is new, now, fresh and exciting,” Goller says. “Tying sales to relevant dates helps companies emphasize their message and stand out.”