Friday 11 November 2016 11:00 am

Singles Day: What can British retailers learn from China's version of Black Friday?

Today marks the world’s largest e-commerce event. No, it’s not Black Friday yet – Singles Day is taking place in China, and it’s bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

At midnight local time it took Alibaba just 52 seconds to take its first 1bn renminbi (£116m) and just under seven minutes to reach 10bn renminbi – and that’s just the beginning.

The event has become a holy grail for e-commerce, currently the fastest growing retail channel. Nearly half of Chinese families already buy groceries online – twice as many as in the UK. This represents the kind of success British retailers can only dream of.

Black Friday

The UK is still finding its feet when it comes to these one-day sales events. Asda introduced Black Friday to the UK consumer in 2013 but, after two short years, customers coming to blows in the aisles and major concerns that the event was only cannibalising Christmas sales, the retailer announced last year that it would not be taking part again.

So what can the remaining retailers do to make Black Friday replicate the success of events like Singles Day? A starting point would be a reputational overhaul.

Mention Black Friday in the UK and most picture dangerously crowded shops, sullen shoppers wrestling over TVs and websites crashing within minutes – hardly an inducement for consumers to buy into the concept.

Singles Day

In contrast Singles Day has a far more positive message: what was started by university students as a celebration of the single life is now about encouraging consumers to buy gifts for themselves.

Combined with the superior e-commerce infrastructure in China, and the fact consumers can treat themselves safely via mobile apps rather than queuing outside on a freezing November morning, Singles Day represents a better shopping experience.

It’s also far more of an event than Black Friday – airing a national TV extravaganza ahead of the event’s midnight launch, the e-commerce giant uses the day to bring the nation together and create a celebratory atmosphere, encouraging those beyond the most tech-savvy to take advantage of the heavy discounting.

In contrast, Black Friday is more a collection of disparate retailer offerings than a carefully choreographed event, and this limits its potential: in contrast, Amazon and its Prime Day 2016 fared better.

British brands

The real question, then, is perhaps whether British retailers should be persevering with Black Friday at all. Numerous British brands – from Waitrose to Topshop – are already turning their attention to Singles Day to raise brand awareness in the lucrative Chinese market.

Alibaba’s founder has predicted that by 2026 one in four people in the world will shop through the e-commerce site, and this year it targeted shoppers in Hong Kong and Taiwan for the first time. Singles Day could soon be coming to a store near you.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.