A cross-border e-commerce company in Shanghai prepares for the Black Friday shopping season on November 16 (XINHUA)
Sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story when it comes to major societal, cultural and economic shifts. That is most certainly true as we try to measure the impact of Singles Day in China and Black Friday and Cyber Monday--originally an American phenomenon--on the way shoppers think and act. We must also pay attention to the reactions of major economies and the bottom lines of multinational companies.
First we must deal with the basic numbers before we uncover the true impact of this holiday season. Alibaba reported $14 billion in sales on Singles Day, shattering last year's $9.3 billion record (and beating my $12 billion estimate). Cyber Monday sales were strong--if not spectacular--registering at $3 billion. Overall Black Friday weekend sales revenues saw retailers pull in about 3 percent more in total sales over last year and many experts are optimistic that sales numbers overall will beat last holiday season's figures.
From the media, consulting companies, polling companies, the National Retail Federation, Alibaba, JD.com, Amazon, eBay and traditional retailers, we've been bombarded with a deluge of numbers. They all have their story to tell about how much was sold, who did well and who didn't. What was the traffic like at brick-and-mortar stores, what percentages were on- and offline and what were the increases at particular websites and platforms, plus a hundred other broad and granular data sets attempting to tally it all up.
So, how do we make sense of this numerical soup? Who and what can we believe and take notes from? An old saying comes to mind about the reliability of numbers in telling a story or uncovering a truth. There are "lies, damned lies, and statistics."
In the end the numbers are meaningless. That's right, no matter what the real numbers are for Singles Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, no tally of numbers can explain what the real story is. My advice is to believe all of it, believe none of it or believe some of it. But don't be satisfied just by hearing about the numbers.
Customers wait in a line at a Woodbury outlet in New York City on November 27, this year’s Black Friday (XINHUA)
In China and in the United States, consumers have voted on their lifestyles with their devices, their wallets and their schedules. The ballot results are in and the winner is e-commerce in all of its various forms.
No matter what the total number of sales are for Alibaba and other Chinese e-commerce platforms, Singles Day has proved that the world's fastest growing consumer class, China's "super consumers" have fully embraced a digital lifestyle.
The mobile phone is now an extension of one's body and personality in China. It has transformed the way people communicate, conduct business, socialize, are entertained, and most importantly, shop, for all of the things they want and need in life.
It is nothing less than a mobile-driven commercial revolution. Mobile sales accounted for more than 60 percent of Singles Day's commerce this year. It is this aspect of the digital revolution and the way it has transformed almost all facets of life and commerce in China that is the real story.
Year after year, Jack Ma, founder and Chairman of Alibaba, displays his genius for understanding the intersection of culture, technology and commerce in China. I have no doubt that his plans to extend Alibaba's platforms and services to every corner of the world will come to fruition in the next few years.
The American pie
What occurred in the United States over Black Friday weekend was just as telling. Americans have similarly embraced a digital and mobile commercial life. An iPhone or Android device is the all-in-one social, cultural and commercial extension of the self.
Americans also voted with their devices, wallets and schedules over the course of the Black Friday weekend, and the results were the same as in China two weeks earlier. While traffic was down at stores across the United States, online sales were up and were spread over the course of the entire four days. And like China, mobile sales grew exponentially.
The infamy of the fighting crowds, depleted inventories and fatigue from a worn-out concept in a millennial world have ensured a steady decline in Black Friday's importance. A cyber shopping season is gaining ground in its stead. My favorite expression of this new sentiment comes in the form of a UPI story headline by Doug Ware--Black Friday Losing Ground to Cyber-Anyday for Holiday Shopping.
So this is it. The real takeaway from Singles Day and Black Friday is: The numbers are great, but they don't matter in the end. A shift toward a new way of thinking, living and shopping has emerged.
We live in a Globalization 2.0 world where the confluence of technology, commerce, China-U.S. power structures and consumer bases, and integrated global supply chains have produced a new cultural reality.
It is a world of borderless e-commerce and omni-channel operations. It is a world where brands and retailers have to re-think how to deliver on the four timeless promises of shopping: price, selection, convenience and experience.
Catching up to giants
The Globalization 2.0 world has birthed fraternal twin boys. They don't look very much the same, but they are thinking and acting in tandem. One is named Jack Ma and the other is named Jeff Bezos.
Alibaba and Amazon are the perfect offspring and catalysts of a world where commerce is becoming just as frictionless, seamless and integrated as the rest of our digital lives.
The rest of the world's retail giants are not only paying attention but are working hard to catch up. Walmart, Target, Suning and others are major e-commerce players. But what about the other retailers, what should they do, and what about brands and service providers? They might be asking themselves: "Is e-commerce my doom or my salvation? Are Alibaba and Amazon my friends or enemies?"
To help answer some of those questions I cannot recommend enough that you watch Responding to the Titans: Alibaba, Amazon and Walmart, Game Changing Strategies by Jim Tompkins, the world renowned e-commerce, omni-channel and supply chain expert.
Throughout the film, he explains the importance of the Titans' global e-commerce market strategy, supply chains, operations and why all brands and retailers must respond to Alibaba, Amazon, and Walmart in a 2.0 world.
What the video, this season's results, and my own experience and research have also shown is that the future of e-commerce is not only mobile, but on platforms. Broadly speaking, there is major growth potential in e-commerce, but much of it is concentrated in a few major platforms like Alibaba, Amazon, Walmart, eBay, JD.com and others.
Brands from around the world must rethink their make-it, move-it, sell-it strategy or risk becoming tinsel-covered dinosaurs.
It is not hard to imagine a time in the near future where November becomes a month-long global shopping spree and Singles Day crosses over to the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Perhaps the West's holiday shopping month, starting from November 25 to December 25, will cross into China and elsewhere, too.
This will be the real legacy of Singles Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday--something the numbers just can't tell you.
The author is vice president of China/Asia Pacific Practice at the global consulting firm Tompkins International and also the author of China's Super Consumers: What 1 Billion Customers Want and How to Sell it to Them
Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan
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