Alibaba Adding E-commerce Twists to Chinese New Year

In 2009, Alibaba Group took a little-known Chinese folk holiday called Singles Day and turned it into the world’s largest 24-hour online sale: the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival.

What can China’s largest e-commerce company do when it has a real holiday to work with? This year, Alibaba is piggybacking on the biggest celebration on the Chinese calendar, Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year aka Spring Festival) in hopes of establishing another e-shopping tradition.

Set to start in mid-January in the run-up to Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb. 8 this year, the Ali Chinese New Year Shopping Festival will have a different (and arguably less feverish) feel to it compared with the sprawling and competitive 11.11 sale, according to Alibaba. The company says its goal for the event is to use e-commerce to encourage two-way trade between China’s urban and rural areas, featuring discounted holiday products for the home, gifts, clothing and particularly food and agricultural products, in keeping with the spirit of a time when family members come together once a year for a celebratory feast.

“Chinese New Year is the most significant celebration through the year and is a time to maintain traditions,” said Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang at a recent kick-off event. By hosting the sale, “we aim to enable rural customers to access an extensive range of New Year goods from home and abroad, while making agriculture products from rural China more available among urban customers.”

To that end, the event will be promoted heavily by Rural Taobao, an arm of Alibaba Group which focuses on rural e-commerce, as well as main Alibaba shopping marketplaces Taobao Marketplace, Tmall.com and Juhuasuan. During the sale, Alibaba will for the first time bring more than 500 premium overseas brands to China’s hinterlands via Rural Taobao, which facilitates online shopping and home delivery through more than 10,000 rural service centers in villages across China. Rural customers in some villages will be able to buy foods from 25 countries, including American crawfish, Alaska black cod, Russian king crab, Canadian lobster, Australian beefsteak, French wine and British tea.

Meanwhile, Alibaba’s cross-border shopping channel, Tmall Global, will work with eight country pavilions (online shops offering national specialty products) and eight major supermarkets, department stores and duty-free shops to provide quality goods from around the world. International retailers including Macy’s, Costco, Metro and King Power will join the promotion.

Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma said the festival is geared not only to offer rural Chinese a chance to buy merchandise that is unavailable in their local shops. It is also meant to boost regional economies by helping farmers generate more income by selling their produce directly to consumers over the Internet. “The 11.11 Shopping Festival is designed for netizens,” Ma explained, “while the Chinese New Year Shopping Festival is created for farmers.”

During the sale, Alibaba will promote local specialties from farmlands and pastures to urban online shoppers looking for healthy foods. Juhuasuan, Alibaba’s flash sales platform, has stored 150 tons of Jinhua ham, 100 tons of beef from Inner Mongolia, four million organic eggs, 10 million packs of Cantonese sausages, 50,000 kilograms of pork from the Dabie Mountains, and 30,000 grain-fed hens from Shuanglian in Hubei province.

In addition to facilitating rural-urban commerce, Alibaba is using the sale to showcase innovations in O2O e-commerce and financial technology. For example, Rural Taobao developed a mobile app so that migrant workers unable to return home for the holiday can use their smartphones to purchase gifts for faraway parents and loved ones.

Tmall Global recently partnered with the Tianjin Free-trade Zone to open a brick-and-mortar store near Beijing where customers can check out a wide range of products, from snacks to cosmetics, available from overseas merchants and order them by scanning QR codes using their phones. Built to facilitate cross-border e-commerce, the “Alibaba experience center” will offer special discounts during the CNY sale.

Alibaba e-payments affiliate Alipay is again putting a high-tech spin on the Chinese New Year practice of giving red envelopes stuffed with cash to friends and family. Alipay this year is the exclusive partner of China’s Spring Festival Gala, an annual TV program hosted by CCTV that is watched by millions. During the show, viewers armed with the Alipay app will be able to receive virtual red packets distributed by Alipay and participating merchants. Alipay said it has landed more than 100 corporate sponsors, including taxi-hailing firm Didi and handset maker Huawei.

Advance sales for the Ali Chinese New Year Shopping Festival are set to start January 14. The actual shopping festival will begin January 17 and will last for five days.

Other Festival initiatives include:

  • Alibaba in cooperation with local governments has chartered trains to provide free transportation to migrant workers to return home for the holiday. The trains will run from Guangzhou to Guiyang and from Shanghai to Xi’an.
  • Alibaba will organize free Chinese opera performances in rural communities.
  • The company will provide assistance to 13,000 rural service center managers so they can host 10,000 New Year’s Eve dinners for the elderly, left-behind children and disabled people.
  • Taobao Marketplace is featuring “time-honored brands” that are widely recognized in China for their connection to Chinese New Year and staying power through generations. Mobile Taobao plans to launch related location-based services to help users find nearby stores carrying these brands.
  • Alitrip, Alibaba’s online travel service platform, has designed several tour routes along which tourists can experience folk customs such as floating lotus-shaped lanterns on rivers in the city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province.