Alibaba's CEO started Singles Day to promote a new brand. Now it's a $25 billion 'phenomenon'  

  • Alibaba launched its first Singles Day shopping event, where loads of products on its platforms get big discounts, in 2009.
  • Nov. 11, 2018 will mark the 10th anniversary of Alibaba's event.
  • Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang was the architect behind Singles Day.

Singles Day may not be that well-known outside of China, but it's a celebration that has turned into a multibillion-dollar annual shopping day thanks to Alibaba. And the architect behind it, current CEO Daniel Zhang, started it to promote a new e-commerce platform.

Nov.11 is known as Singles Day in China and is widely believed to have begun in the 1990s in universities by men celebrating being single. In 2009, Alibaba launched the first shopping event on that day, offering heavy discounts on its Tmall shopping platform.

Tmall is one of Alibaba's key e-commerce platforms. It was first launched in 2008 under the name Taobao Mall and, in 2009, Zhang decided to hold the Nov. 11 shopping day to boost the brand.

Alibaba saw gross merchandising value — the value of goods sold via its platforms — hit $7.8 million in the 2009 edition of Singles Day. Last year, however, that figure stood at over $25 billion, making it one of the biggest shopping events in the world. Zhang said that's something he never anticipated.

"I never expected that we can actually transform this day into a commercial day ... for the whole society," Zhang told CNBC in an interview that aired Friday.

"I think today it's more like a phenomenon," he added.

Zhang pledged in a recent speech that Singles Day 2018 will be the largest-ever in terms of "scale and reach." In the interview with CNBC, however, he didn't give any targets for gross merchandising value.

The Alibaba CEO said that the biggest change in Singles Day is how the brands have viewed the platform.

"The biggest change is how ... business people look at the power of the internet. And day one people just think this is a new channel to sell more products, but today most of the businesses ... they view digital technology, internet, as an infrastructure to transform their existing business and ... go to a new market to serve the new customers," Zhang said.

This year's Singles Day comes amid falling stock markets in China and a difficult trade environment with the U.S., which could hurt the Chinese consumer. In its latest earnings report covering the three months ending Sept. 30, Alibaba cut its revenue forecast for its fiscal year, citing macroeconomic conditions. CNBC's interview with Zhang occurred before the earnings report was released and was not related to the figures.

However, the Alibaba chief talked about the state of the consumer in China.

"We do see the up and down of the consumption by categories. But overall speaking, I think Chinese people, especially young people, they are growing up in the new era. And they like to spend. And they want a better lifestyle. We want to continue to serve them in that way," Zhang told CNBC.

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