Debating the World is a Pi Comment column focusing on the big debates and events occurring in the world today, reflecting on their impact on society. While Black Friday may have captured our attention in Britain, China’s Singles’ Day far outstrips it in revenue. These events may be the telltale signs of a more fundamental change in shopping experiences and habits.
Europeans and members of the Commonwealth typically think of November 11th as Remembrance Day, established in commemoration of members of the armed forces who lost their lives during World War I. However, this day bears great significance for other reasons among young people in China. November 11th is known as Singles’ Day, set up for celebrating young peoples’ pride in being single. This date was chosen because the number ‘1’ resembles an individual being alone and single. Nonetheless, many in China do not celebrate Singles’ Day by priding themselves in being single, rather the day has evolved into a national shopping extravaganza. Originally established by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2009, Singles’ Day was merely a promotion for single people to treat themselves with new purchases. This year, Alibaba saw sales figures soaring past $1 billion just 85 seconds into Singles’ Day.
Revenues generated on Singles’ Day have grown from $100 million in 2009 to an exceptional $30.8 billion this year. In a nutshell, Singles’ Day is the Chinese version of Black Friday or Cyber Monday. The only difference is that the revenue of Singles’ Day dwarfs the Thanksgiving weekend. According to 2017 figures, Singles’ Day accumulated a total of $25 billion, while the combined total of Black Friday and Cyber Monday was only $5.8 billion. The astronomical figures associated with Singles’ Day may be evidence that new online retail technology has finally taken over traditional retail outlets.
Whilst all attention is set on the record-breaking figures and eye-catching discounts, it is worth thinking about the potential consequences of such e-commerce shopping frenzies. The ubiquitous influence of retail technology during Singles’ Day was felt strongly in China, and this use of technology is now so inextricably linked to e-commerce and online shopping. If our shopping experience is made more convenient through technology in online shopping, where does the future lie for physical stores and shops? Fundamentally, what is the future of retail itself?
The exceptional growth in Singles’ Day revenue exhibits China’s impressive and influential retail power. Whilst China’s growing economy is contributing to these staggering sales figures, it is worth highlighting the role of technology and data analysis in acquiring customers and strengthening market segmentation. It could be argued that China has been extremely forward-looking in this aspect, as Chinese retailers have been employing a variety of technological advances, namely big data and artificial intelligence, to analyse customer behaviour and boost sales. That is, information and behavioural trends gathered from customers are eventually transformed into economic output. Retailers are now better able to decipher general trends in consumer behaviour, rather than simply recognising the purchase history of an individual customer. Advances in retail technology will ultimately restructure our shopping experiences and retailers’ customer outreach.
Given the influences technology may have on the retail industry, where does this leave physical, high street retailers? Inevitably, high street retailers are the first to be affected by the increasing prevalence of e-commerce. Prospects for the high street look bleak, with numerous retailers announcing store closures, resulting in substantial job losses. Even as established high street brands are endorsing and utilising e-commerce as a means of boosting sales, they are facing significant competition from smaller, concept businesses, most of whom adapted to e-commerce long ago. Does this symbolise the end of the physical retail industry?
These technological advances hint at an inauspicious outlook for high street retailers. However, physical retailers cannot be replaced, and the fact that some retailers are struggling does not mean that our high streets are failing. The vast majority of global shopping is still done in person, rather than online. In fact, many purely e-commerce retailers such as Amazon and Alibaba are moving offline, opening physical cashier-less and click-collect stores. On the other hand, the impact of technology on the future of retail is a fundamental one. The emergence of big data will ultimately revolutionise our shopping behaviour and experience. Thanks to technology, retail seems to be a sphere of constant evolution and innovation, such that the path to purchase is becoming ever smoother. As customers, perhaps we should simply be grateful for this.