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Singles' Day: Alibaba smashes records at world's largest online shopping event

Alibaba smashed its Singles' Day shopping record on Friday by clocking growth of more than 32 percent, the Chinese e-commerce giant said on Friday.

Retailers on Alibaba's platforms had recorded $17.8 billion worth of gross merchandise volume (GMV). In 2015, the 24-hour e-commerce sales event racked up $14.3 billion GMV in total.

"Back in 2013, $5.14 billion was our one-day GMV. Now we can achieve it in one hour," Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang told the company's live blog earlier in the day, adding that in the first hour of Singles' Day, orders were coming in 175,000 per second.

Media reports had forecast GMV from Alibaba's 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, as Singles' Day is officially called, to come at $20 billion in 2016, easily eclipsing the $2.74 billion and $3.07 billion respectively generated online during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales in the U.S. this year.

Chinese workers sort through boxes of goods at a delivery company in Lin'an, east China's Zhejiang province on November 11, 2016.
STR | AFP | Getty Images
Chinese workers sort through boxes of goods at a delivery company in Lin'an, east China's Zhejiang province on November 11, 2016.

Singles' Day was first celebrated in the 1990s by young, single Chinese as an anti-Valentine's Day. In 2009, Alibaba began using the made-up "holiday" to promote discounts at retailers on its e-commerce platforms, as a means of boosting revenue in the traditionally quiet sales period before the Lunar New Year season.

Increasingly, international brands have jumped on Alibaba's Singles' Day bandwagon, with more than 14,000 taking part in the 2016 sale, accounting for about 30 percent of total GMV half-way into the event, according to Alibaba stats. Orders, meanwhile, came from 207 countries and regions.

Alibaba reported that deals offered by Apple, Nike and Siemens were among the top-sellers with Chinese consumers in the early hours of the day. Local Chinese brands that made a strong showing were appliance manufacturers Haier and Midea, and smartphone maker Meizu.

Alibaba has worked to make Singles' Day increasingly international, with its star-studded "countdown gala" this year featuring appearances from retired NBA star Kobe Bryant, footballer David Beckham and his fashion designer wife Victoria, and U.S. pop band OneRepublic. Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba Group, showed up to perform a magic trick, and the new Alibaba Pictures' film production was also promoted during the gala.

Duncan Clark, chairman and MD of the business advisory BDA China, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Friday that the gala was a clever merging of Alibaba's focuses on entertainment and shopping.

"In China, shopping is entertainment," Clark said. "A lot of people [in inland cities] are tuning in to live broadcasts for products. Hundreds of thousands of people follow internet celebrities who use these platforms to sell."

Clark noted that ensuring some spotlight hit its non-e-commerce arms was an opportunity for Alibaba to guarantee it could ride out any slowing of interest in Singles' Day itself.

"Jack Ma likes to say that they're no longer an e-commerce company. They're sort of transcending that," he said. "It's about data, it's about finance, it's about media."

Interest in e-commerce at present, however, remains strong.

Jessie Qian, head of consumer markets at KPMG China, told CNBC on Friday that mobile e-commerce transactions have been a major driver of China's online sales boom. At least 90 percent of online shoppers in China had used their smartphone at least once to make a transaction, she said, and forecast that that number would continue to grow.

"There are several factors contributing to the growth in mobile users. First of all, it's the access of cheaper mobile phones and secondly, the confidence in the third party payments (systems)," she said.

David Beckham (C) and his wife Victoria Beckham (third from left) attend the 2016 Tmall 11:11 Global Shopping Festival gala in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
STR | AFP | Getty Images
David Beckham (C) and his wife Victoria Beckham (third from left) attend the 2016 Tmall 11:11 Global Shopping Festival gala in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.

Meanwhile, the number of middle class consumers in Southeast Asia and India was also growing, and they wanted high-quality goods from the U.S. and Europe, Alibaba's President Evans said, according to the company's live blog.

Observers need only work out which markets had high internet penetration and consumers who preferred to access the web through mobile to figure out where Alibaba would head next, he said.

This is the first year that shoppers in Taiwan and Hong Kong could buy global brands on Tmall, Alibaba's online retail platform, on Singles' Day and analysts expect the e-commerce event to be gradually rolled out globally in the years ahead.

Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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CORRECTION: Alibaba reported 32 percent growth in this year's Singles' Day shopping. That figure was misstated in an earlier version of this article. The report has also been updated to reflect that Alibaba's GMV for 2015 was $14.3 billion, not $14.4 billion as previously reported.