Jack Ma, founder and chairman of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, speaks at the "Back to Class" event held by Jack Ma Foundation in Sanya, south China's Hainan Province. Photo: Xinhua/Yang Guanyu.

INTERNATIONAL – Alibaba logged 213.5 billion yuan ($31.7 bn) (R 441 bn) in sales for its annual Singles’ Day extravaganza, setting a record as shoppers swarmed the e-commerce giant’s online bazaars.

China’s largest company, which used a concurrent televised entertainment spectacle featuring Cirque du Soleil and Mariah Carey to further drum up business, reported that Xiaomi, Apple and Dyson products were the top three brands in early sales.

The annual retail celebration, originally dedicated to the nation’s unattached, has become an important bellwether not just for the company, but also the country. 

This year’s Nov. 11 gala offers a glimpse of consumer sentiment in China as US tensions and a tit-for-tat tariff war depress stock markets and threaten to dampen the world’s No. 2 economy.

Alibaba surpassed the 100 billion yuan mark less than two hours into Singles’ Day, according to Alibaba’s news website.

“We can feel that merchants are fully embracing the internet and helping with consumption upgrade,” Daniel Zhang, Alibaba’s chief executive officer, told reporters in Shanghai.

Scorching Run

The challenge for billionaire Jack Ma and Zhang, his lieutenant, was to notch another record after a scorching decade-long run. With a cooling economy, saturated markets and competition from smaller platforms such as JD.com and Pinduoduo, Alibaba is seeking new growth engines.

“Alibaba is making use of all of its platforms to make Singles’ Day a holiday that also includes dining and entertainment,” Jet Jing, president of Tmall, one of the company’s main sites, said at the Singles’ Day event.

 “We’re connecting online shopping with offline physical outlets.”

Singles’ Day was the brainchild of co-founder Ma and Zhang, who came up with the idea of turning the counter-cultural holiday into a shopfest a decade ago. 

The chief executive, who takes over from a retiring Ma as chairman next year, must prove he can carry on that legacy. His Hangzhou-based company also uses the occasion to test the limits of its cloud computing, delivery and payments units.

Still, there was some uncertainty this year, as the trade war and deflating asset values threaten to disrupt economic growth. Chinese online retail sales growth slowed to 24 percent in the third quarter, down 12 percentage points from the previous three months, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

It’s been three years since Ma said he wants to make Singles’ Day a global phenomenon. International expansion will be a key plank of Zhang’s effort to keep breaking records. 

Last year, the top three non-Chinese Singles’ Day markets were Russia, tiny Hong Kong and the US.

In the first hour of this year’s Singles’ Day, the top countries selling to China were Japan, the US and South Korea, and the most popular items purchased overseas were dresses, wool coats, pants and hoodies.

At the same time, Alibaba’s efforts to push into the US are sputtering. It discarded a pledge to create a million jobs in the country, lost its top American dealmaker, and jettisoned plans for affiliate Ant Financial to acquire MoneyGram. 

President Donald Trump said in mid-October he plans to withdraw the US from a 192-nation treaty that gives Chinese companies discounted shipping rates for small packages sent to American consumers, making it harder for Chinese merchants to push into the market.

Southeast Asia will give the clearest indication of Alibaba’s ability to go global. With Singapore-based Lazada now fully under its wing, the region remains one of the company’s relative bright spots, amid a backdrop of slowing growth in China and turmoil brought on by the escalating trade war.