Alibaba, Amid Intense Hype, Confronts a Slowdown on Singles Day
HONG KONG — Singles Day in China has become the world’s biggest shopping day. Yet its most impressive aspect is not the millions of packages shipped or the billions of dollars spent, but the fact that it exists at all.
With clever marketing and help from an online spending boom, the Alibaba Group, in less than a decade, turned Nov. 11 into a symbol of the power of the Chinese consumer. Last year, by Alibaba’s tally, $13.5 billion changed hands over its platform that day — a feat it expects to top on Friday.
Yet the very dynamics that helped Alibaba engineer the Hallmark-like holiday out of thin air have turned against it.
Growth in new internet users is slowing in China, as is growth in the number of Chinese people and companies opening stores on Alibaba’s sales platforms. More important, growth in the value of the goods sold on the company’s platforms is decelerating.
Even the numbers underlying the event — which investors scrutinize as a gauge of the health of Alibaba and the Chinese consumer — are under a cloud. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating how Alibaba reports its Singles Day operating data.
即使是这场活动背后的数字——投资者将其视为阿里巴巴和中国消费健康状况的一个衡量标准——也笼罩在乌云中。美国证券交易委员会（Securities and Exchange Commission，简称SEC）正在调查阿里巴巴“双11”运营数据报告方式。
Pressed by investor expectations on one hand and a slowdown in growth on the other, investors are watching closely to see what Alibaba’s next act will be.
In response, the company has been investing billions of dollars outside China and in a number of thus-far unprofitable businesses like cloud computing. One of its biggest pushes is in entertainment, and Singles Day this year appears aimed at using show business to maintain the buzz.
The event this year is scheduled to feature a concert by OneRepublic and appearances by Kobe Bryant and the German soccer player Thomas Müller. (The singer Katy Perry pulled out of the event, citing a family issue.) The company has also hosted a fashion show, and it is producing a series of television shows for the holiday and introducing a Pokémon Go type of augmented reality game.
今年的活动计划是开联欢会，有One Republic表演，科比·布莱恩特(Kobe Bryant)和德国足球运动员托马斯·穆勒(Thomas Müller)也会到场。（歌手凯蒂·佩里[Katy Perry]以家事为由取消了演出安排。）该公司还举办了一个时装秀，制作了一系列相应的电视节目，并且推出了一款类似于《精灵宝可梦Go》(Pokémon Go)的增强现实游戏。
In some ways, Alibaba is trying to smooth over issues faced by China more broadly. The demographics that have powered its expansion are less favorable, and it must manage a transition to new sources of growth.
Singles Day has become a symbol of the rise of one of those sources: Chinese consumption.
“You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” said Duncan Clark, the founder of the investment advisory firm BDA China and an early adviser of Alibaba who has written a book about the company. “Alibaba has to keep these numbers growing. A slowdown obviously wouldn’t be welcomed by the government.”
Alibaba says sales volume is only one metric by which it judges Singles Day, and it said in a written statement that “it is inevitable that the law of big numbers comes into play.”
Singles Day was originally an obscure, little-practiced holiday for singles in China to celebrate themselves, and it is held on Nov. 11 for the solitary feeling that the date 11/11 invokes. The company’s version of the holiday was created in 2009 by Daniel Zhang, Alibaba’s current chief executive, who at the time oversaw its Tmall service, the company’s platform for major brands like Adidas and Disney. The promotion, which was intended to help the then-fledgling Tmall platform, posted $7.7 million in sales.
Those sales were not reaped by Alibaba, however. The company uses a statistic called gross merchandise value that measures the monetary worth of transactions that flow through its services. Alibaba makes money by charging vendors on its platforms to advertise and for a percentage of sales.
“Ever heard of a logistics company that reported the value of the goods they shipped?” said Marshall Meyer, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, adding that the metric was confusing in Alibaba’s context.
Gross merchandise value is also not defined under accounting standards, and critics have grown increasingly skeptical of the numbers. For example, it does not include returns, which for Singles Day can be as high as 30 percent of sales, analysts say. Alibaba says that returns are usually only in the single digits.
Vendors also report that there is pressure to offer steep discounts on Singles Day, ginning up even more sales volume. “If you don’t lower your price as asked for Singles Day, then in future you will be less favored,” said Odyssey Chang, a merchant on Alibaba’s sites who sells luxury goods and wine.
Alibaba has de-emphasized the metric in recent months and no longer reports it on a quarterly basis. Still, Mr. Zhang, the holiday’s originator, said in an interview that Alibaba decided it would report the number in real time throughout the holiday, as it had in the past.
Alibaba, Mr. Zhang said, “had a very transparent conversation with the S.E.C.” He said that Singles Day was a quirk of the Chinese internet that they were proud of, “something new that didn’t happen in the U.S.”
If it is a novelty, it has its analogues. Perhaps the best comparison might be Apple’s product unveilings each autumn. If Apple’s event has an air of exclusivity and focus on products, Alibaba’s is a far more boisterous, egalitarian affair, but one that turns the company into an emblem of China’s economic rise.
At the center is Alibaba’s founder and executive chairman, Jack Ma. A son of professional performers of a Chinese style of comedy called cross talk, Mr. Ma brings to the company charisma and an eye for attention rather than a gift for technological wizardry.
Earlier in the company’s history, he acted as ringleader of an event called Alifest that brought vendors and employees together and that aimed for maximum buzz. One year, Arnold Schwarzenegger attended. Another year, Jack Ma covered himself in face paint and sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from “The Lion King,” in front of a stadium of Alibaba customers and employees.
在公司创业之初，他作为阿里巴巴网商年度大会(AliFest)的牵头人，把商户和员工聚集到一起，旨在最大限度地提升热度。有一年，阿诺德·施瓦辛格(Arnold Schwarzenegger)出席了这个大会。还有一年，马云在一座体育场里，在阿里巴巴的客户和员工前面，脸上化着装唱起了《狮子王》(The Lion King)中的歌曲《今夜你能否感受到我的爱》。
Alibaba often uses Mr. Ma in ways intended to appeal to its online vendors — a group that it hopes will be inspired by his success to spend on advertising on the company’s platforms. During Alibaba’s 2014 initial public offering in the United States, Mr. Ma gave television interviews but allowed a group of merchants to ring the stock exchange bell.
“I think me and many in the industry were inspired by Jack Ma and the successful internet businesses of his time,” said Mr. Chang, the Alibaba merchant. Merchants like Mr. Chang supply a huge chunk of Alibaba’s revenue as they spend ad dollars on its websites.
The same sociopolitical dynamics are at work for Singles Day, except they increasingly include the product-buying audience at home.
“The economy has grown so quickly that more and more people are left with the feeling of not being able to participate fully in the economic miracle,” said Mark Natkin, founder of the technology research firm Marbridge Consultants. “All these people now have this holiday where they can celebrate themselves.”
“经济发展如此迅速，越来越多的人感觉自己无法充分参与这场经济奇迹，”科技调研公司迈博瑞咨询(Marbridge Consulting)创始人马克·纳特金(Mark Natkin)说。“现在这些人有了这个节日，他们可以在其中自己庆祝。”
With growth slowing, Alibaba is increasingly counting on those viewers. Last year, the company’s four-hour gala attracted more than 100 million views on television and live-streaming.
And Mr. Zhang said that Mr. Ma, who has stepped back from the company’s day-to-day operations, will appear on the show. “Jack,” he said, “is very happy to be involved as a participant.”