Alibaba Wants Its $18 Billion Singles’ Day to Be More, Mean Less

  • Company has been downplaying gross merchandise volume metric
  • Chairman Jack Ma sees business as much more than e-commerce

Alibaba's Evans: Very Unlikely We'll Keep Growing at 60%

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. reported a whopping $17.8 billion of sales during its online shopping bonanza Singles’ Day. But it doesn’t want you to focus on that number.

That’s because billionaire Chairman Jack Ma thinks pure e-commerce businesses are going to face tremendous challenges in the future, as online shopping becomes the new normal. While sales on Singles’ Day grew 60 percent to 91.2 billion yuan in 2015, the increase this year was about half that rate, leading some analysts to call the event a slight disappointment.

“It’s highly unlikely we’ll continue to grow at 60 percent each year because the absolute numbers are becoming so large,” Alibaba President Mike Evans said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

That staggering $17.8 billion is gross merchandise volume (GMV), or the monetary value of Friday’s transactions through Alibaba’s services. Investors and analysts have become increasingly skeptical of the number, which isn’t defined under accounting standards and doesn’t include products returned. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating how the e-commerce giant reports numbers from the Singles’ Day promotion.

Obscuring Growth

The GMV results aren’t as indicative of Alibaba’s growth as investors may think, according to Marshall Meyer, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who likened the value to “water through a pipeline.” The numbers don’t reflect Alibaba’s profit, as the company mainly makes money through advertising purchases by merchants who use its sites. As critics of the GMV calculations have grown, the Chinese e-commerce giant has tried to downplay the figure and it recently stopped reporting the value every quarter.

“It doesn’t represent our true identity, and overemphasizing it makes people just think about e-commerce,” Ma said on stage at the countdown gala.

Read more: Alibaba’s bet on the middle class -- a QuickTake on the company’s growth

Hangzhou, China-based Alibaba has been recasting itself as more than just an online shopping hub by investing in cloud computing and entertainment, spending billions of dollars on media assets like Youku Tudou, to generate new growth in the face of China’s slowing economy. The company has started to establish itself in Hollywood, backing movies like the latest film in the “Mission Impossible” franchise. In the U.S., Alibaba has invested in startups ranging from Magic Leap to Snap Inc., the company behind Snapchat. Sales from its digital media and entertainment division quadrupled to 3.6 billion yuan -- or almost 11 percent of the company’s revenue in its most recent quarter.

“They’re on the treadmill they’ve created. They need to create a new paradigm and way of measuring success,” said Duncan Clark, founder of investment advisory firm BDA China and an early adviser to Alibaba. “You will approach a point at which Chinese consumers are sated.”

Creating a Phenomenon

The extravagant fanfare of events leading up to Singles’ Day -- which can be thought of as Cyber Monday and the Super Bowl halftime show on steroids -- reflects how Ma sees the identity of the company and its wide-ranging strategy. Singles’ Day, a twist on Valentine’s Day, started in the 1990s as an obscure holiday, but has snowballed into a Chinese consumer phenomenon since Alibaba turned it into a one-day online sales extravaganza in 2009. The e-commerce giant live-streamed its countdown gala, where stars from actress Scarlett Johansson to retired basketball player Kobe Bryant took the stage to draw in millions of eyeballs.

Though the transactions are made on one day, Alibaba rolled out activities a month earlier to get products pre-loaded into consumers’ shopping carts. On Oct. 23, Alibaba live- streamed an eight-hour fashion show during which viewers could pre-order clothes on the website as models walked down the runway. It also released an augmented reality mobile game in which consumers followed a “Tmall Cat” mascot to merchants to earn discounts and prizes. That’s why gross merchandise volume spiked to $1 billion within the first five minutes on Friday.

Management at Alibaba has said repeatedly that the company is more than the Inc. of China and uses Singles’ Day to highlight its varied business interests.

“This all reinforces the value proposition Alibaba has,” said Anthony Zackery, a portfolio manager at Seattle, Washington-based Zevenbergen Capital Investments LLC, which holds about 30,000 shares in Alibaba, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “It’s hard because I could just look outside my office window and see Amazon’s campus. With Alibaba being across the Pacific, it’s distant.”

— With assistance by Lulu Yilun Chen

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