Will the power of Single’s Day ever truly capture the West?

Single's Day comes complete with an expensive media event

The behemoth that is Asia’s Single’s Day has grown again, with billions spent and a threefold increase in average sales recorded across South East Asia. But with a unique premise (lovelorn graduates buying gifts for themselves) and a ‘sales day’ market already engulfed with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, will Western brands and retailers ever embrace 11/11?

The day for singletons looking to treat themselves is led by giant e-tailer Alibaba, which broke its own record and took an astounding $25bn of sales yesterday. However, it’s not a day exclusively for the Chinese holding company – challenger JD.com amassed an impressive $19bn yesterday alone, too.

Buoyed by these successes, Western brands eyeing up lucrative Asian audiences would be unwise to ignore the phenomenon of Single’s Day; particularly since the success of luxury fashion houses such as Burberry in the continent has proven the Asian interest in heritage brands to be more than a passing fad.

“The growing potential for western brands in China is huge,” says James Hebbert, UK managing director of Hylink, a Chinese digital agency that recently began to take on the West itself. “Mobilised by tech innovation in e-commerce and next-generation platforms that are leap-frogging western capabilities, the next 15 years will see the number of middle-class consumers in China with spending power triple to almost 550 million.

“British talent, products and design continue to remain indisputably desirable to international consumers – not least the Chinese. Yet being a strong, ‘heritage’ brand at home is not enough to crack the Chinese market, as stalwart names like Weetabix and Marks & Spencer have shown in their recent failures to penetrate the market.:

Hebbert encourages western brands to take a deeper look at the idiosyncrasies tied up in the fabric Single’s Day – itself a commercial construct that could easily get lost in translation. Asian culture and consumerism are still different beasts in comparison to the West, despite growing similarities in taste.

They also need to be understood within the context of one of the fastest-moving e-commerce and tech scenes on the planet, where the social media rulebook is rewritten to encompass foreign platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. And the checkout experience – a factor largely neglected and underdeveloped by the West – needs to be “cutting edge”, according to Maria Prados, vice president for global retail at Worldpay.

“To turn browsers into buyers, it is essential to tailor the online shopping experience to local tastes,” she said. “For Chinese consumers, this means focusing on your mobile proposition – shoppers expect to use their preferred payment option – increasingly e-wallets like Alipay and WeChat Pay.”

British heart, Asian mindset

British brands that intentionally leverage their provenance to engage with global consumers must adopt a new marketing language and approach. According to Hebbert this should “not only reflect their unique brand personality, but also capture the spirit and character of the very Britishness that makes them beguiling to both Chinese and other foreign markets”.

“British brands that follow this formula will ultimately be the winners, driving sustainable growth both at home and internationally for many years to come,” he claims.

Outside of branding and marketing, Western companies will need to understand the logistics involved in Single’s Day too. The likes of Argos and Wallmart have nailed the operations involved in mega discount days on home turf, but they may not be prepared to trade outside of their own borders.

“In order to achieve a solid customer base, UK retailers must ensure that they are able to offer Asian shoppers the best possible localised shopping experience,” explains Nir Debbi, chief marketing officer and co-founder of Global-e. “However, many retailers in the UK are falling short of the mark.

“Our research found that just 26% of UK retailers offer Chinese shoppers the ability to pay in Yuan. This means that in many cases, retailers are putting the onus on shoppers to estimate the cost themselves and this can often deter shoppers from making a purchase or becoming a repeat customer. Accepting leading Chinese payment methods…and giving shoppers the ability to pay any taxes of customs at the checkout so they are not hit with an unexpected bill at a later date are crucial steps for online retailers looking to sell to China.”

Once operational and communication hurdles are cleared, Single’s Day should be a shoo-in for Western brands looking for a bump in Asian sales. But the question still remains as to whether consumers in the West will ever buy into the concept of Single’s Day as they have with Black Friday

”Will Singles Day ever catch on in the UK and the West?" asks Hebbert. "Muted consumer spend in the face of economic uncertainty post-recession and post-Brexit is something that worries all retailers. Also 11.11 does, of course, coincide with Armistice Day.

"Yet, with the proliferation of mobile and the continual refinement of technology, the answer is yes, very probably. If Western retailers and brands want to ride this tide – one that currently represents a $25bn opportunity of which just a small portion could make a meaningful difference to the survival and growth of a business – then they must think seriously long and hard about how they can exploit this space with both technology and brand ‘equity’ for commercial good.

He concludes: "The world is getting smaller, facilitated largely by technology. I don’t see why we won’t start to see global events such as this, driven by the power of Chinese technology."

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Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

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