The company’s methods for ginning up excitement have come under scrutiny before. Two years ago, Alibaba said that the United States Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating it for the way it reports Singles Day sales. The company’s preferred metric, gross merchandise value, is supposed to represent the amount of money that changes hands on its platforms. But there is no standardized way of calculating it.
The company has since de-emphasized the number. But the episode illustrated the way that Alibaba sees itself — as a company that breaks the mold.
Ever since Alibaba listed its shares in New York four years ago, the company has used a sense of manifest destiny to beguile investors, stock analysts and an eager news media. China was on the long road to middle-class prosperity, the company said, and Alibaba had the biggest tollbooth. A bet on Alibaba was a bet on China itself.
Last year, when the data firm CB Insights asked people to vote for the company they would invest in and hold for 10 years, Alibaba was the winner, beating out every American tech giant as well as Saudi Aramco and Goldman Sachs.
Now, though, it is clear that Alibaba’s privileged place in China’s rise is not guaranteed.
In takeout delivery, for instance, Alibaba is facing off against several wealthy rivals. It has made big bets that have struggled, including on the troubled bike-rental company Ofo.
Or consider Pinduoduo, an upstart e-commerce company that went from zero to 350 million customers in just three years. You may have not heard of the brands on the app, and you might not trust the quality of the goods. The prices, though, cannot be beat. Pinduoduo has won over shoppers in China’s smaller cities and towns.
No one expects Alibaba to generate whopper Singles Day sales growth numbers every year for eternity. At some point, when growth starts decelerating quickly, the event could change, to focus on one week’s sales instead of one day’s, or on something else entirely.