Can Smuckers sell China on PB&J? It’ll find out on Singles’ Day

SAN FRANCISCO – The world’s biggest sale begins at midnight Beijing time on Friday when Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba launches its Singles’ Day shopping festival.

But perhaps more importantly, this year Smuckers is using the event to try to introduce China’s more than 1.3 billion consumers to the joys of peanut butter and jelly.

Alibaba’s online marketplace has hosted a sale on Nov. 11 for seven years now. Last year Alibaba ( BABA) booked sales of $14.3 billion on Singles’ Day.

This year, it’s estimated the company could sell as much as $20 billion worth of goods, a 40% year-over-year increase over last year, according to New York-based research firm Fung Global Retail Technology.

That would be close to $1 billion in sales per hour.

The sale is mainly aimed at shoppers in China and Asia. Close to 100,000 brands, 11,000 of them from outside China, will be selling orders on the site, said Alibaba.

It’s also a big target for U.S. retailers looking to reach Chinese consumers. Last year the United States was the top seller of imported goods, Alibaba said. Overseas brands accounted for 10% of Singles’ Day purchases in 2015.

Apple customers sell their new Apple iPhone 7s to dealers across the street from the Apple store in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district early in the morning on the day of the Apple iPhone 7 launch in Hong Kong, China, 16 September 2016 (Photo: EPA/Alex Hofford)

Major U.S. brands offering items during the sale include Apple, Nike and Levis. Launching a major play this year is Orrville, Ohio-based Smuckers, which has sold jams and other spreads since 1897. It will be touting American-made peanut butter and a variety of jellies. While ground peanuts are used in some sauces in China, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are not a part of the typical Chinese diet.

This year Alibaba is also offering shoppers the chance to make virtual, 360-degree shopping trips to foreign stores that include Macy’s, Costco and Target using a special virtual reality shopping program called Buy+.

The sales event launches with a four-hour, star-studded live TV show that counts down to midnight in Alibaba’s hometown of Shenzhen. Last year the variety show was watched by around 100 million viewers. This year it’s being produced by David Hill, known for producing the Academy Awards and several Super Bowls.

This year’s show will feature not just China’s hottest stars but many from America, including former Los Angeles Laker player Kobe Bryant and the pop band OneDirection.

Singles’ Day has spread far beyond China, with sales events now going on in 20 countries.

It’s having the most success globally in countries where Alibaba’s international wing, AliExpress, is successful, said Lily Varon, a global e-commerce analyst with Forrester Research.

“It’s already a massive top e-commerce site in Russia, Brazil and Spain, all areas where consumers are now accustomed to shopping from a Chinese site,” said Varon.

In China, Singles’ Day has taught buyers to expect “aggressive” discounts on items, said Varon.

“The precedent has been set for consumers wanting discounts of upward of 50%, to the point that Chinese authorities are looking into retailers inflating prices in the weeks prior to the shopping day, so they can cut on Nov. 11,” she said.

In the U.S., AliExpress

Alibaba’s non-Chinese sales portal is called AliExpress. While it has a U.S. presence, the site has remained a bit player in the American e-commerce scene.

While Singles’ Day has proved highly successful with U.S. brands wanting to sell to Chinese consumers, it hasn’t become a shopping event for U.S. consumers.

That’s partly because Amazon and others already occupy much of the e-commerce space and partly because Nov. 11 is too close to Christmas to get much traction as a separate shopping holiday.

In addition, Singles Day falls on Veterans Day, a holiday honoring military veterans that the United States has celebrated since the end of World War I in 1918.

Creating a shopping event out of whole cloth is no easy task, said Varon. Amazon did it with Prime Day, held in July. Many believe the idea was borrowed from Singles Day. However, even on its home turf, Amazon struggled to make Prime Day a “thing” with consumers. “It was rocky at first,” she said.

First, it was Bachelor’s Day

Singles Day began as an obscure Valentine’s Day-like holiday in the 1990s among university students in Nanjing.

The date, 11-11, was chosen because it is made up of 1’s, or singles. What started as a day for bachelors to gather with friends and meet new people originally broadened to include women and be a general “meet possible mates” day.

Singles’ Day is the Chinese translation of 光棍节, Guānggùn Jié, or “bare branches holiday.” Bare branches is a Chinese term for bachelors because they have not yet married and had children, or ‘borne fruit.’

In 2009 Alibaba rebranded 11-11 it as a day for unmarried people to buy items they wanted for themselves or for friends, rather than waiting for a wedding and the cascade of presents it traditionally involves.

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