E-commerce giants resort to automation to boost Singles’ Day sales

The world’s biggest online sale event, Singles’ Day or Double-11 festival, could become a testing ground for automated deliveries to limit human contact and consequently prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus, besides boosting the demand for local and international products.  

China’s e-commerce giant, Alibaba Group Holding, has unveiled an autonomous logistics robot, Xiaomanlv, literally meaning “little competent donkey,” to bear the burden of last-mile deliveries. 

Developed under its global research initiative, the robot can carry 50 packages and run 100 kilometers on a single charge, drastically bringing down the cost of deliveries and reducing human contact. 

Automation has always been a high priority for e-commerce companies globally given the online shopping boom. Amazon is also preparing a fleet of drones for fast and efficient deliveries. 

More than 200 million packages are delivered daily in China, which is likely to increase to 1 billion packages in the coming years. 

“We are glad to launch our latest mobile delivery robot, which will support Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics platform, to serve communities, campuses and business parks in China,” said Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence. 

“To meet the strong demand for deliveries for our internal business growth and for the society at large, we have been investing in smart logistics, including logistics robots, for years,” he added. 

Innovation during the time of viral outbreaks

During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China in 2003, the consumers faced circumstances similar to those of 2020.

Powered by robust online connectivity in 2003, more than 79.5 million internet users took advantage of JD.com and Alibaba’s nascent e-commerce facilities, making it easy for them to purchase products during lockdown periods. At that time, Alibaba, with about 400 employees, was barely three years into the business. 

According to Nielsen Holdings, a data and market measurement firm, the influence of SARS in 2002-03 depended on the categories when it came to consumer goods. The sale of disinfectants, health and nutrition grew, and demand remained strong a year after the outbreak. 

In 2004, there was unprecedented growth in yogurt sales, which was up 40 percent on the previous year, mainly driven by demand for more nutritious yogurts. And liquid milk increased by 20 percent as consumers sought out high-protein dairy products.

“In the short run, luxury and durable goods like clothing were affected more heavily than daily necessities like food and beverages during the SARS outbreak,” wrote Nielsen in a research statement. 

Today, the number of internet users has exploded to 904 million and e-commerce giants are trying to optimize their operations with innovations like automated deliveries and an enhanced shopping experience like augmented reality, 3D product displays and fast deliveries. 

Keeping pace with the demand

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing international travel and tourism to a grinding halt, consumers in China are raring to purchase luxury items. The country’s effort to get the virus under control has helped open up the domestic market and boost the economy. 

“There is also a sharp increase in online purchases of imported products due to the impact of the pandemic on international travel,” said Alvin Liu, president of Tmall Import and Export.

“The pandemic has transformed the consumption environment and created new consumption trends with strong and sustained growth in consumer demand for essential items, home and living, and healthcare products even after the pandemic situation has stabilized in China,” Liu added.  

In order to satiate consumers’ demand, over 1.2 million new imported products will be debuted, including those from 2,600 overseas brands joining the Singles’ Day sales for the first time, Alibaba announced.

Last year, the total value of consumer goods imported into China was more than $200 billion. But the share of online consumption was only 6 percent, representing a massive potential for cross-border e-commerce. 

This Singles’ Day is likely to boost sales of both local and international products. The sales of imported goods during Singles’ Day, especially from the U.S. and European Union, which is witnessing a second wave of the pandemic in some regions, would help companies there cope with the plunging sales graph. 

(Cover: Alibaba showcases its Xiaomanlv, the company’s first logistics robot, at this year’s Apsara Conference. /Alibaba)

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