Sainsbury’s aims to turbo-charge its growth in China next week on 8.8, Alibaba’s shopping event for international brands.

The grocer, which has piloted trading on Alibaba’s Tmall marketplace since September last year, will double the products it sells on the website. More than 100 Sainsbury’s branded products from afternoon tea to Taste the Difference granola will be available on Tmall. And 8.8 is when it plans to make its impact.

8.8 is a 24-hour shopping extravaganza that Alibaba created last year to promote its international offering. Held on the eighth day of the eighth month – an auspicious date in China where people consider eight a lucky number – it is an occasion on which international brands launch exclusive products and eye-grabbing deals on Tmall.

Making an event out of shopping

There are only a few companies in the world who can orchestrate their own shopping event. Amazon, which pioneered Black Friday in the UK and more recently Prime Day – 24 hours of deals for subscribers to its speedy delivery service – is a pro. However, Alibaba is fast becoming the master.

Before 8.8, it spawned ‘Singles’ Day’, an anti-Valentine’s Day celebration on November 11, dedicated to celebrating one’s single status. Alibaba managed to transform Singles’ Day into a shopping extravaganza dedicated to self-gifting. Last year, the etailer processed a jaw-dropping £9.4bn of orders on the day.

Retail around the world is becoming more event-based with Singles’ Day, Black Friday and Prime Day all grabbing shoppers’ attention and spend.

“The modern consumer is increasingly looking for experiences. Entertainment sales are falling yet live gig sales are rising. Creating experiences around shopping online is a way to differentiate,” says Planet Retail global research director Robert Gregory.

Alibaba UK managing director Amee Chande says Chinese consumers love an event more than most. “In China, shopping is a cultural experience. Shopping festivals create a sense of excitement to focus the attention of Chinese consumers who have a high propensity to shop.”

Is 8.8 here to stay?

8.8 might be a new event but it’s off to a stellar start, according to Chande. In August last year, Alibaba achieved its second biggest day for cross border sales, usurped only by Singles’ Day, she says.

“8.8 Day is already a very popular shopping festival. People are anticipating it and using it as an opportunity to look for novel brands and products from overseas,” says Chande.

This year, 75 UK retailers, from The Cambridge Satchel Company to Whittard, will be showcasing new products and deals to the hordes of shoppers on Tmall.

Arthur Cheung, country manager for Greater China at ecommerce consultancy Practicology, says 8.8 is focused on the more “high end” customer and is very discount driven. “During Alibaba’s 8.8 Day, most participating merchants will offer heavy discounts on some items to attract traffic,” he says. Alibaba also offers coupons giving shoppers up to 20% off their purchases.

How to stand out

Cheung says brands should have a clear strategy to make the most of 8.8 and urges them to work with Alibaba to meet their objectives. “Getting direct support from Tmall is always the best way to stand out. Discussing and negotiating with them directly always helps,” he says.

However, Cheung says the real challenge is converting this discount-driven 8.8 shopper into a loyal customer of a brand.

“That should be the key objective of taking part in these types of event. To do that you must work on your Tmall store’s merchandising, design and content, customer service and your data,” he says.

Will Sainsbury’s make a splash?

Sainsbury’s will certainly stand out on 8.8 because it has secured its own super brand day on the same day. Super Brand Days are special 24-hour events that promote a particular brand. Chande says Alibaba holds around five super brand days a month, and recent tie-ups have included Fitbit, Starbucks and Maserati. Alibaba heavily promotes the chosen brand across Tmall and directs consumers to a micro-site. Sainsbury’s is poised to benefit from this on one of Tmall’s busiest traffic days of the year.

Securing the slot is a coup for Sainsbury’s. Brands have to apply to have a super brand day and Alibaba has a long waiting list, according to Chande. The company has a selection committee to decide which brands are successful. Those that launch something new, expand their range or are prepared to offer great deals are favoured. 

“We look for a brand that has a good track record, exceptional customer service and one we’re confident will have robust sell-through,” says Chande. “Super brand day is our acknowledgement of Sainsbury’s efforts to build their brand presence. This is an added opportunity for them to connect with consumers.”

Sainsbury’s should be prepared for a tsunami of sales. US wholesaler Costco admitted it was “shocked” after achieving $3.5m sales in 24 hours when it held a super brand day back in 2014. And Chande says that luxury car maker Maserati sold more than 100 cars, priced at 999,800 yuan, in the first 18 seconds of its super brand day in March.

Chande expects Sainsbury’s to have a red-letter day next week. “Sainsbury’s are starting to get some real traction. They have reputation for fine quality food. Chinese consumers seek out British products. They see the British as having a civilised, refined lifestyle. Food stuffs like high tea and breakfast are part of the lifestyle that the Chinese middle-class are aspiring to.”

Sainsbury’s looks likely to prosper by bringing tea back to China.