Comment: Prepare for the next cultural revolution

There's a long history between East and West of one side inventing then the other perfecting. Gun powder headed our way and a few centuries later we repaid the compliment with the fax machine. In these days of globalisation the rate of travel is faster and the size several orders of magnitude greater.

The West is about to be influenced by Chinese retailing in a way that will have a significant impact on the future. For many on this side of Prime Meridian Ali Baba is a figure of mythic Arabian runes who got lucky finding gold while out exploring one day. For others (especially after the much publicised recent IPO), Alibaba is the Eastern Amazon, re-writing the book on e-tailing and making more gold yearly than the 40 thieves could spend in a lifetime.

Alibaba's record breaking flotation unleashes a behemoth on us whose sheer scale is still broadly unrecognised outside of China.

European consumers can expect some profound changes to their shopping calendar blowing in on winds from the east. The cosy yearly cycle of roses (Valentine's), chocolate (Easter) and tat (Christmas) is about to be up-ended. Amazon has done a reasonable job to get us to believe in Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Speaking of Cyber Monday, in the minds of many it is believed to be the largest eCommerce event on the planet. Well that’s not true – soon to arrive on the not-so-slow boat from China is "Singles Day". Hands down the biggest trading day in the world and it’s ALL Alibaba's.

Only created in 2005, Singles Day on 11 November is a retailing tsunami that last year saw Taobao and TMall (two of the main Alibaba brands) break all records for online shopping by shifting 35 billion Yuan or $5.75 billion of merchandise in just one day, exceeding their own record for the same day last year by 80% and spending four times what the US does on Cyber Monday ($1.46 billion in 2013), the Monday after Thanksgiving. How the frenetic singles day will sit with Europe's traditionally reflective stance on 11 November remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure, Singles Day will be just the first of many retail imports from the eastern calendar.

How they will affect our shopping habits is yet to be written. We've been cynical of greetings cards company's plans for world domination via Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for years as a manufactured excuse to shift merchandise, but that hasn’t stopped us buying into the trend. Even if we view Singles Day as just another flimsy reason for a sale, we do all love a discount.

It's worth remembering that nothing in retail is quite as it seems or indeed static. Urban legend has it that the happy, jolly, rather large man with a beard dressed in red was created by the Coca-Cola company in the 1930s. At some point (probably in the 1970s) Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night merged with across-the-pond import Halloween.  As society becomes ever more secular, festivals with their foundations firmly in the Jewish-Christian calendar have become simply opportunities to shop.

So it will be interesting to see if Singles Day swallows up Valentine's or whether the two can co-exist side by side. How lucky for the beneficiaries of our attentions to get treated twice a year. Some truth then that the quickest way to our hearts is via our wallets.

Open Sesame indeed.

Paul Martin is managing director of Boxwood Insights at management consulting firm Boxwood. He writes regular comment pieces for Essential Retail, focusing on the major players in the industry.

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