SINGAPORE: It’s strange but true. Taylor Swift is the headlining act for Alibaba’s annual 11.11 Countdown Gala this year.
If you are wondering what an all-American pop star has to do with a Chinese online shopping bonanza, you are not alone. In fact, if you are wondering why a shopping event needs to be ushered in with a concert, I am with you as well.
But first, a little background. Held on Nov 11, this annual retail extravaganza was initiated by the Chinese e-commerce giant in 2009.
It was originally conceived to piggyback on the Singles Day celebration in China - the numerals of this date resemble “bare sticks” which allude to unattached people - by encouraging consumers to treat themselves to various Alibaba deals, of course.
READ: Alibaba says Singles' Day sales hit US$13b in first hour
But in recent years, this shopping festival has morphed into a practically unrecognisable behemoth solely targeted at whipping up a buying frenzy.
In the days before the actual 24-hour event, shoppers are encouraged to collect coupons on Alibaba’s various platforms, obsessively check apps and social media accounts for other promotions and even pre-load their shopping carts in anticipation of the day itself.
As Taylor Swift would say: “This is exhausting!”
READ: Alibaba to resume Hong Kong listing plans as soon as November: Sources
It is also contrived. Take for instance this Countdown Gala, which has apparently been held on Nov 10 for a number of years but has been relatively unheard of outside China until recently, mostly because Alibaba is attempting to market 11.11 to a global audience.
Last year, model Miranda Kerr, songstress Mariah Carey, performance troupe Cirque du Soleil and various Asian pop stars peddled products and belted specially written songs like “Buy, buy, buy” in between performing their hits.
This year, since the show was broadcast on various channels in the region, viewers got to tune in and gawk at the spectacle of celebrities hawking random stuff nobody ever knew they needed.
But laughable as these tactics may seem, money talks. Last year, Alibaba surpassed its own record from the previous year with a gross merchandise volume of US$30.8 billion, which outstripped the online revenues of the United States’ biggest shopping days - Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday - combined.
So it is not surprising that even though practically nobody gives two hoots about a day that celebrates singlehood, legions of other retailers have happily jumped on the bandwagon, concocting increasingly elaborate promotional schemes.
Besides Alibaba (and the various platforms it owns, including Taobao, Tmall and Lazada), other major players including Shopee, Rakuten and JD.com are also holding multiple campaigns and conducting live streaming sales.
The latter essentially means you will need to buy within a certain short timeframe or the deal will be no more.
Smaller retailers too, want a slice of the pie. In Singapore, the 11.11 sales will happen both online and in-store across an entire gamut of retail categories ranging from beauty, fashion, consumer goods and even insurance and travel.
All this shopping madness is making me do one thing - I refuse to spend a single cent on anything to do with 11.11.
Don’t get me wrong, I love getting groceries delivered to my doorstep and stocking up on staples with a few taps of my iPhone.
And yes, I adore a good deal as much as the next person but this hoopla is just too much.
First up, many of these shopping websites have terribly noisy layouts, which are a pain to navigate.
They also stock a pasar malam jumble of items, so the user will have to possess supreme patience and a surplus of free time to sift through hundreds and possibly thousands of listings to pick one that they think best suits them.
The quality of some products are also questionable. The last time I used one of these sites was to procure plastic inflatable floats for a beach vacation.
Of the two I eventually bought, one arrived used - I know this because there were repair patches over the float and still, it would not fully inflate.
Don’t even get me started on the long shipping time (I made my purchase more than a month before departure) and the inscrutable, bothersome return policy.
PS: I chose to cut my losses, snap a few pictures of the float for the ‘gram and write off this purchase.
Add 11.11-style marketing pressure to these crowded marketplaces and all I feel is immense stress and confusion at having to figure out how to game the system to score the best discounts and ensure I secure the exact products I want, if they have not already been snapped up already.
No thank you. I would rather save my time and spend a little extra at a later date for a better experience.
BRICK AND MORTAR 2.0
We might rediscover the joy of shopping in the latest wave of brick and mortar concepts. Despite the downturn in physical shopping in recent years, there are signs that things are changing.
The rise of experiential shopping, where shops offer an immersive, well-curated experience in beautifully designed surroundings, has the potential to make spending money more fun than before.
For example, South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster looks like an art gallery that just happens to stock some of the coolest sunglasses around.
At homegrown paper goods store Bynd Artisan, you can customise your own notebook and get it bound and personalised by an artisan.
In fact, even online shops are beginning to make the move to physical spaces too. Both Taobao and homegrown clothing brand Love Bonito now have offline stores.
There is an undeniable pleasure in browsing and admiring the design of a tangible, physical space and getting to actually try an item before buying it.
Best of all, you can judge the quality of the products with your own five senses instead of relying on strangely written product descriptions and low quality photographs.
And I will tell you, there is no marketing gimmick more effective than offering a customer a glass of crisp, cold bubbly to sip on while perusing the wares on display.
I do not need to watch a Taylor Swift concert on screen. She can croon to me on Spotify.
Karen Tee is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer. Six years ago, people thought she was crazy to leave the security of her full-time job. Today, most want to know how she does it.