Prime Day vs. Singles Day: Battle of the e-commerce heavyweights

Will Amazon's latest bid to put a sales day on consumer calendars eclipse Alibaba's Chinese triumph?

It’s the most wonderful time of … July? Today, Amazon celebrates Prime Day, a sales event that the e-commerce giant claims will beat the day after Thanksgiving for the size of its deals. "Step Aside, Black Friday — Meet Prime Day," Amazon announced when it unveiled the "global shopping event" for subscribers to its premium service timed to coincide with its 20th anniversary.

With Prime Day, Amazon not only has the chance to swell the ranks of its Prime membership club and sell a metric ton of inventory. The holiday is a chance for the US e-commerce giant to show up its Chinese rival, the Alibaba Group  —  which makes less money but delivers far more packages and processes way more Black Friday orders  — in the invented holiday department.

Singles Day, an existing Chinese holiday that Alibaba claimed dominion over in 2009, is the undisputed champion in the new wave of annual e-commerce events. Held each Nov. 11 (11/11, get it?), Singles Day started on Chinese college campuses as an occasion for young people to exchange gifts and celebrate their single status; then Alibaba got hold of the impromptu holiday and turned it into the world’s biggest shopping event. In 2014, Alibaba reported $9.3 billion in Singles Day sales — dwarfing Cyber Monday in the US, which comScore reported generated a mere $1.35 billion.

Eager to re-create that sort of success, Amazon in May unveiled a three-day summer sale in India with a national media campaign billing it as a festival. Amazon’s Indian efforts were in turn inspired by Google’s success in that country with the Great Online Shopping Festival, which has run in mid-December since 2012. And this week, Google India will add its own summer event, the "Great Online Home Festival." By presenting its events in the context of Indian festivals — and featuring a charitable dimension aimed at honoring India’s delivery men — Google has created a tradition around its shopping events that resembles more traditional occasions.

But the undisputed champion in the new wave of annual e-commerce events is Alibaba and Singles Day. Does Amazon have a fighting chance to touch that kind of success? Is it even an ambition? (Amazon has yet to specify whether Prime Day will become an annual tradition: "We don’t have future plans to share yet, but we are excited to get feedback from our members," the company told Campaign.)

According to stats compiled by UK parcel delivery service ParcelHero, Amazon sells 5 billion items a year compared with 14.5 billion for Alibaba. When it comes to revenues, however, the tables turn: Amazon brought in nearly $89 billion in 2014, compared with $12.3 billion for Alibaba.

Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru said the promotion is an unusual one for Amazon, but cautioned against outsize expectations. "Beyond a bona fide anniversary celebration, it's hard to be too cynical about Amazon's Prime Day," she said. "Amazon rarely, if ever, does promotions like this. And given it's only one day, and only available to Prime members, purportedly on a finite number of items, it is unlikely to make too huge of a impact on the business. Why? Because Amazon is so big, it would have to do something even more drastic for one day to make a huge difference." 

According to eMarketer analyst Yory Wurmser, a few factors in the sales cycle make July a tempting date for Amazon to stage an event. "Back-to-school shopping is the second-biggest time of year for shopping, and it really starts right about now," he said. "It’s a similar type of kickoff to the back-to-school season as Black Friday is to Christmas."

"It is a season that’s really ripe," he added. "There aren’t a lot of big events, so you can make a real splash creating one."

Wurmser said Amazon is also motivated to shore up its competitive position against well-funded e-commerce startup as well as aggressive free shipping offers from Target, Walmart and others.

Indeed, Walmart on Monday announced it will offer special "rollback prices" for 90 days starting today. In a dig at the fee-based Prime program, Walmart said its sale will show customers "you don't have to pay a fee to get a better price."

Meanwhile, Wurmser said, Alibaba is looking beyond China and may be headed Amazon’s way. "In terms of global competition, Alibaba is riding its valuation to become a global player," Wurmser said. "It’s looking to the US as well."

Amazon doesn't deny the commercial core of its event, referring to it as a "fun shopping event for our members globally." Nevertheless, Prime Day does share some essentials with actual US holidays — not the least of which is its roots in retail.

Daniel Gifford, project historian with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., pointed to the history of Mother’s Day, which was originally envisioned by creator Anna Jarvis as a religious holiday for churchgoers to contemplate the role of mothers in their lives. (That’s why Mother’s Day falls on a Sunday, Gifford said.) Despite Jarvis’ original vision, the popularization of Mother’s Day was driven by advertising by US florists. "Floriculture already had inroads into churches and the church trade," Gifford said. "There was a natural link between what was conceived as a very religious holiday and the commercial holiday we now know as Mother’s Day."

Unlike Mother's Day (or Singles Day) Amazon makes no claims that Prime Day is about anything more than sales. The question is whether global consumers still bother to make that distinction.

Raahil Chopra (Campaign India) contributed to this report.

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