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Employees of Alibaba walk during Alibaba Group's 11.11 Singles' Day global shopping festival at the company's headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, Nov. 11, 2019.

ALY SONG/Reuters

Chinese retailer Alibaba Group Holding Ltd said on Monday that sales for its annual Singles’ Day shopping blitz crossed the $30 billion mark at 4:31 p.m. (0831 GMT), putting the event on track to set a record in its 11th year.

The figure is equivalent to over 80% of U.S. rival Amazon.com Inc’s online store sales in the latest quarter and matches takings across Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms on Singles’ Day last year.

Sales growth for the full 24-hour event, however, is likely to fall short of the year earlier, analysts said, held back by a slowing overall e-commerce industry in China at a time when the country’s economic expansion is heading toward a historic low.

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The event, a gauge of Chinese consumer sentiment, has also become a shop window this year for Alibaba as the firm plans to sell $15 billion worth of shares in Hong Kong this month. The U.S.-listed firm has spent big to diversify its business yet still earns over four-fifths of revenue from e-commerce.

Alibaba turned China’s informal Singles’ Day into a shopping event in 2009 and built it into the world’s biggest online sales fest, dwarfing Cyber Monday in the United States which took in $7.9 billion last year. The name is a play on the date, Nov. 11, rendered 11/11 – or Double Eleven, as the event is also known.

The event has since been replicated at home and abroad, with Singles’ Day promotions found at rivals such as China’s JD.com Inc and Pinduoduo Inc as well as South Korea’s 11thStreet and Singapore’s Qoo10.

But sales growth for Alibaba on Singles’ Day has weakened as China’s economy slowed. Last year, it posted a 27% year-on-year sales increase, the lowest in the event’s 10-year history. Citic Securities forecasts sales to rise 20-25% this year.

CELEBRITY START

The Chinese retail juggernaut, with a market value of $486 billion, kicked off this year’s 24-hour shopping bonanza with a live performance by U.S. pop star Taylor Swift followed by live-streamed marketing of over 1,000 brands.

Sales hit $1 billion after one minute and eight seconds and reached 158.31 billion yuan ($22.6 billion) in the first nine hours, up 25% from the same point last year, Alibaba said.

The firm also said 84 brands including those of Apple Inc, L’Oreal SA and Fast Retailing Co Ltd’s Uniqlo each made over 100 million yuan in sales in the first hour.

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Over half of merchants on its Tmall marketplace used live streaming to sell products during the event, and sales generated through the medium surpassed 10 billion yuan at 8.55 a.m. (0055 GMT), Alibaba said.

“Nearly all our brands have opted for livestreaming promotions some time this year,” says Josh Gardner, who helps overseas companies sell products on Tmall as CEO of Kung Fu Data.

“It’s more entertainng than browsing through a product detail page. Traffic from livestreaming is easy to convert into transactions, and Tmall has supported stores that run livestreaming activities with resources.”

One vendor, New Zealand-based nutritional supplement maker Clinicians, broadcast livestreams from a booth set up on Alibaba’s campus. According to Carlos Zhao, China market manager, the company has seen a 40% jump in sales after it started livestreaming in China six months ago. “This is a product form from new Zealand, everything is in English, and so many people are selling similar products, so customers wonder, ‘Which one do I choose from?’” he told Reuters. “Having a livestreamer can help to break those barriers.”

Tmall has said it expects over 500 million users to make purchases this year, about 100 million more than last year. It has also put more emphasis this year on promotions targeting areas outside of China’s massive first- and second-tier cities.

“The younger generation is buying more, and the customer from rural areas, the customers from lower-tier cities, they are buying imported products,” Tmall General Manager Alvin Liu told reporters.

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Singles’ Day is known to be a stressful time for Alibaba employees with workers sleeping at the office to keep up with orders.

This year, at Alibaba’s campus in Hangzhou, workers bustle around in red T-shirts with the slogan ‘Make 11 happen.’

Percussion echoes through halls as departments bang large drums each time a sales record is broken. Pink rice cakes – dingshenggao, or ‘victory cakes’ eaten by Yue Army soldiers during the Song Dynasty – fill the office snack bars.

This is the first time Alibaba’s Singles’ Day is being held since its flamboyant co-founder Jack Ma resigned as chairman in September to “start a new life.”

JD.com, which started its Singles’ Day promotions on Nov. 1, said transaction volume over the 11 days through Monday afternoon reached 179.4 billion yuan.

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