By Liza Lin and Xie Yu
Chinese consumers stayed glued to their phones Wednesday, spending billions of dollars on items such as Taylor Swift-branded jackets, Apple Inc. iPhones and prepaid beach vacations, in a test of Chinese consumer confidence after the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.
By the evening of Nov. 11, also known as Singles Day, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese technology giant, said it had raked in a record 498.2 billion yuan in sales, equivalent to $75.1 billion.
The Hangzhou-based company, which operates two of the country's most popular e-commerce platforms, this year extended the buying window of its annual shopping event from one day in previous years to several days. That helped it break last year's buying record by 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.
But growing regulatory pressure on a popular way that shoppers fund purchases on Alibaba's e-commerce sites and new draft rules proposed Tuesday to curtail the influence of internet companies cast a shadow on the event -- and the business model that has made the empire founded by entrepreneur Jack Ma a global force.
Since last week, when regulators halted the initial public offering of Alibaba-backed payment platform Ant Group, Alibaba's New York-listed shares have fallen 16% -- erasing $137 billion from its market value, according to Refinitiv data -- reflecting in part investor concerns about a raft of regulatory actions.
Even so, Singles Day's record-breaking performance this year shows how online shopping has gained even more ground in this pandemic-wracked year, said Sean Shen, a partner at Ernst & Young in Greater China. This year's event drew consumers looking for steep discounts and those splurging on luxury goods instead of taking overseas vacations, he said.
The heady buying reinforces Alibaba's outsize influence on Chinese consumption patterns even as it faces increased regulatory pressure on its Ant affiliate and its own core operations.
It also illustrates the role Ant Group plays in its daily operations. For this Singles Day, Ant's Alipay mobile app, which has more than a billion users in China, featured numerous shopping deals for iPhones, skin care products, Dyson Ltd. hair dryers, Panasonic Corp. massage chairs and other big-ticket consumer goods.
Alibaba's platforms also allow many products to be purchased using loans from Huabei, a microlending service offered by Ant. Huabei, whose name means "just spend," sharply increased credit limits for some users ahead of Singles Day, according to screenshots and posts by individuals on Chinese social media. Some loans were even offered interest-free.
Ant's digital lending operations, which have tapped banks for a lot of the funding they provide to consumers, have come under increasing scrutiny. China's banking regulator recently proposed new rules that could require Ant to fund more of its loans or put up more capital to support its lending operations.
Ant and Alibaba haven't disclosed the proportion of purchases on Alibaba's sites that are funded with digital loans that Alipay helps originate. That is one reason Chinese regulators are concerned, said Rich Turrin, a financial-technology industry consultant. "They do not know where the credit is going, or on what it is being used," he said.
In 2016, Ant said as much as 20% of Alibaba's Nov. 11 sales were financed with Huabei loans, up sharply from the previous year. The companies haven't disclosed the data since.
Alibaba Chief Executive Daniel Zhang on an earnings call last week sidestepped a question from an analyst about how important Ant's microlending services were to its retail sales. He said the e-commerce company didn't track that closely and that consumers were free to choose how to fund the purchases they made via Alipay.
Singles Day was originally conceived as a lighthearted holiday for Chinese to celebrate their unmarried status. Alibaba has over the past decade turned it into China's biggest shopping bonanza, generating more revenue than the U.S.'s Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday events combined, according to data from Adobe Analytics.
The 2020 festivities kicked off with a marathon stage show Tuesday night in Shanghai, with U.S. pop star Katy Perry performing via live stream.
Unlike in the past, when millions of Chinese shoppers stayed up late to process their purchases at the stroke of midnight on Nov. 11, this year consumers could make their purchases during the first three days of November and on Singles Day itself. That was to alleviate pressure on the logistics industry, allow consumers more time to shop and merchants more time to plan their operations, Alibaba said.
The buying frenzy was stoked by live-streaming advertising pitches. A large number of smooth-talking hosts took to Alibaba's e-commerce platforms to pitch products and interact in real time with viewers, a concept similar to home-shopping channels that has grown in popularity in China.
On Wednesday afternoon, more than 327,000 viewers watched as Zhao Daxi, a popular female livestreamer, paraded winter coats. "It looks great when you match it with a white scarf," she said as she slipped into a pink coat that fell to her ankles. Her assistant reminded viewers where they could find the link to buy the coat.
One famous live stream host raked in some $500 million in advance orders during a seven-hour session early in the Singles Day campaign, according to Huitun.com, a Chinese database tracking live stream shows.
China boasts roughly 749 million online shoppers, according to state agency China Internet Network Information Center, more than twice the total population of the U.S.
--Raffaele Huang and Jing Yang contributed to this article.
Write to Liza Lin at Liza.Lin@wsj.com and Xie Yu at Yu.Xie@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires