Expert view: Why Singles Day won’t win hearts this year
By Simon Neville
Former London Press Club Business Journalist of Year
Of all the made-up days retailers have managed to create, Singles Day remains, and is likely to stay, the biggest single online shopping day in the world.
Never heard of it? It was set up by Chinese online retailer Alibaba, encouraging China’s singletons to treat themselves to a gift.
Alibaba is expected to see sales of $20 billion, up 40% on last year, according to the Fung Business Intelligence Center.
However, the chances of it catching on in the UK are highly unlikely – despite the best efforts of creative marketing managers attempting to whip up interest among British shoppers.
To give an example of how unimportant the day seems to be among retailers, I headed down to the launch of the New West End Company’s Christmas report – predicting the key trends likely to hit the retailers the organisation represents on Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street.
The report went into details about how important car-free shopping days will be in central London, along with explaining how click and collect will encourage customers into shops to pick up their goods and hopefully make the odd impulse purchase.
Black Friday – that other successful made-up shopping event – got a mention, although the retailers around the table all agreed Black Friday will be less influential than in previous years.
After all, last year there were more journalists camped outside John Lewis hoping to see shoppers fighting over bargains, than actual customers going into the store.
Singles Day didn’t even get a mention in the report. Afterwards, I spoke to Barratt West, MD for Tiffany’s in the UK, about Singles Day and what plans the jeweller had for the event.
Despite rich Chinese shoppers being a key demographic for Tiffany’s, especially in recent months thanks to the weak pound, I was met with a blank stare.
West said: “We’re not doing anything for it. I don’t think it’s really much of a thing here and we can’t see it catching on.”
I agree. British shoppers are a savvy bunch. We engage more with online shopping than virtually any other nation and can see through marketing wheezes better than most.
Just look at the evolution of Black Friday – the annual shopping extravaganza in the US imported to the UK by Amazon and Asda in 2014.
Admittedly, that savviness was lost in the first year, as Asda saw customers fight over £200 TVs, police were called to Tesco and Sainsbury’s saw scuffles. One shopper told the Guardian, saying: “I got a Dyson but I don’t even know if I want it. I just picked it up. I don’t even know how much it costs, I don’t know even know if I’m going to buy it. I just wanted something.”
A year later though, the fad had passed and shoppers stayed away, as we realised Black Friday was not much different than an endless Debenhams Blue Cross Sale or another M&S Flash Sale – and probably not worth the hassle.
However, don’t think Singles Day will disappear completely. No. We will still hear about it as the incredible sales in China wrack up, and it will no doubt remain the single biggest online spending day in the world.
But, when you consider that online shopping has evolved to such a level that deliveries can be made just an hour after ordering, having the biggest online spending day is almost meaningless, because the convenience of online shopping is now so good, why would anyone bother waiting for a made-up marketing day to buy what they want?
This year the build-up to Black Friday seems even more muted. So, could Black Friday virtually die out in the space of three years? What chance does Singles Day have of catching on?
Nic Wenn, CMO of Maple Syrup Media, argues that Singles Day – and Black Friday – are here to stay.
If you want to make a good guess about the future of Singles Day or Black Friday, you simply have to look at the numbers – and you’ll realise they’re very likely to become a fixture in the retail calendar, at least for the next few years.
We’ve studied huge amounts of our own data on consumer behaviour around these recently-imported retail phenomena and, no matter how sceptical you are about their cultural significance here in the UK, an inescapable reality emerges: customers are increasingly holding off making online purchases until these retail periods arrive, in the hope of making a great deal. It’s a behaviour that is spreading from the savvy online customer to the wider shopping public.
Yes, high street sales around Black Friday were slightly more muted in 2015, but the pattern simply wasn’t repeated online. In fact, according to our figures, shoppers made over £1bn of sales online on Black Friday and £3.3bn over the four-day Cyber Weekend – that’s 35% up year on year. I can see no reason why Singles Day wouldn’t follow the same pattern.