The Lonely Hearts Club Brand

Alibaba Is Changing E-Commerce with Virtual Reality

The origins of Chinese Singles’ Day predate modern e-commerce, but this reverse Valentine’s Day celebration has turned into a great excuse to shop. The event, which takes place on 11 November, has grown to become the world’s largest shopping day.

Alibaba is open for business every day of the year, but Singles’ Day has become the Chinese e-commerce company’s perennial defining moment. In 2016, the event generated almost $18 billion in sales via Alibaba’s site, a 32 percent jump over 2015. Compare this with Cyber Monday in the US, which saw sales surpass $3 billion in 2015 across all retailers.

For Alibaba, the growing success of its Singles’ Day sales event demonstrates an impressive talent to manage a complex logistics chain. Few companies could manage $18 billion in sales during a 24-hour period. Alibaba is truly an e-commerce giant in every way.

Alibaba’s founder and chairman, Jack Ma, doesn’t hesitate to spend big to promote the event. The company flew in Western celebrities including David Beckham, Kobe Bryant and Scarlett Johansson to add to the local stars selected to bring excitement to the rush of buying discounted products online. The international angle indicates Alibaba’s ambition to make Singles’ Day a global shopping event. Other companies have caught on and are mimicking the format, with Amazon’s Prime Day in July across its Prime offering and Flipkart’s Big Billion Days that take place during Diwali in India.

The 2016 sales event saw Alibaba use virtual and augmented reality to add a new layer to the shopping experience. Customers could explore 360-degree digital world replicas of stores, inspecting and choosing products to add to their baskets.

This virtual reality experience is rudimentary; perhaps in the way Web shopping was in the ’90s. But Alibaba is innovative and has a long-term vision to challenge not only Asian rivals, but also top retailers in the West. Alibaba is now the world’s largest retailer and has ambitions to continue growing internationally, becoming the world’s mall.

Tens of thousands of people tested Alibaba’s virtual reality shopping experience within hours of its launch on 11 November, many using low-cost cardboard headsets. The company didn’t release details about sales volumes or revenue generated through virtual reality. Instead the company pointed to the “experimental and fun” nature of shopping using the technology. Alibaba introduced its Buy+ platform in summer 2016 to get ahead of the coming virtual and augmented reality trends, targeting younger consumers who are more willing to play around with new hardware and user experiences.

The virtual reality experience is still quite clunky with awkward movements and confusing interfaces. But Alibaba is keen to get in early, creating some hype with new technologies but also recognizing their potential.