China's Singles Day lures US brands to a bonanza that dwarfs Cyber Monday

A JD logistics staff delivering goods in Beijing during the Double 11 special sales holiday.
Zhang Peng | LightRocket | Getty Images

Cyber Monday is big, but businesses that want to participate in the largest shopping day of the year are quickly turning to China.

Friday is Singles Day, when some $20 billion in goods is expected to be purchased on the Chinese e-commerce market. U.S. brands such as Victoria's Secret, Crayola and Beats are taking aim at Singles Day — which is about five times bigger than Cyber Monday — by launching stores on e-tailing giant Alibaba.

Macy's is doubling its effort this year from last, said Joseph Tsai, Alibaba's vice chairman and co-founder. Overall, 11,000 non-Chinese brands are promoting products on Alibaba's Tmall site this year, up from 5,000 in 2015.

"A lot of brands have tried to set up their own website and to access consumers directly, but they've not been very successful," Tsai said in an interview on Thursday from Shenzhen, where he was preparing for a massive gala at Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre. "Consumers are going directly to Alibaba."

Alibaba created the online shopping holiday in 2008, and in recent years it has turned into an international festival. According to Fung Business Intelligence, sales will jump 40 percent this year from $14.3 billion in 2015.

Asia-Pacific will account for more than half of the $1.9 trillion global e-commerce market this year, according to eMarketer. In China alone, retail e-commerce is expected to grow 36 percent to $899 billion.

On Singles Day, hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers flock to the site for discounts and promotions, and Alibaba is the main way to reach them.

Unlike in the U.S., where brands can access consumers through a variety of sites, including Google, Facebook and Pinterest, their options in China are severely limited because those U.S. companies don't operate there. Also, foreign companies are disadvantaged by a government that favors local businesses, so working through a Chinese platform is often essential.

Singles Day is becoming one event they can't miss.

In the first two hours on Friday, gross merchandise volume of U.S. products exceeded the total from last year's Singles Day, according to Clavis Insight, with products from Apple and New Balance ranking among the most popular brands.

As of mid-morning in Shenzhen, international brands accounted for 30 percent of volume, and the U.S. was the biggest contributor, followed by Japan and Korea, according to Alibaba.

Crayola's China division started working with Alibaba in 2013, doubled in three years and is expecting double-digit growth this year, said Kelly Tung, general manager of the company's Asia operations. She said Crayola's best-sellers are Ultra-Clean Washable markers and crayons.

In addition to opening up the Chinese market, Alibaba provides a nationwide logistics and shipping network that reaches across cities and into the rural villages. The site also handles payments, so businesses don't have to worry about processing money and currency issues.

Should investors be concerned about Alibaba?

One problem that has dogged Alibaba since its early days is counterfeits.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative, which handles trade agreements and disputes, removed Alibaba from its Notorious Markets list of counterfeit goods in 2012, but the American Apparel & Footwear Association recently argued for its reinstatement.

Intellectual property protection is a growing concern for all brands as Chinese manufacturers bolster their presence on internet marketplaces across the globe.

Tsai said that it's a constant "cat and mouse game" with the counterfeiters, but that the company is proactively removing bad listings at a stepped up rate. Alibaba takes down 25 listings for every complaint by deploying homegrown technology that scours 10 million new listings a day, Tsai said.

"You have to employ very sophisticated technology to police the site," Tsai said. "We cooperate with IP enforcement agencies to crack down on counterfeiters not just online but also getting data to law enforcement so they can do factory raids and shut down factories."

While Alibaba is the dominant marketplace and creator of Singles Day, there are other places for U.S. businesses to go. Last month, Wal-Mart announced that starting on Friday, the company is running its Sam's Club store and global imports store on Alibaba rival

The two companies are also working on two-hour delivery for customers using the grocery and fresh food business.

"Our new services will leverage our combined strengths to give Chinese consumers access to quality products from around the world," Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon said in the joint press release.