A large screen updates Singles Day sales at Alibaba's headquarters after hitting 100 billion yuan or US$14.2 billion. Photo: AFP

Ready, steady, spend. Online shoppers splashed out US$1 billion in a frenzied 68 seconds as Alibaba launched its famed online Singles’ Day in China.

Just over an hour later, the “11.11” buying binge had smashed through the 100 billion yuan ($14.3 billion) barrier for total gross merchandise volume through the ubiquitous Alipay platform.

Last year, the sprawling Chinese e-commerce and entertainment behemoth pulled in a record $30.7 billion for the 24-hour consumer marathon. But that figure was shattered on Monday, topping $38.3 billion.

“Singles’ Day is being held up as a bellwether of Chinese consumers’ willingness to spend in the face of a domestic slowdown,” Jeffrey Halley, a senior market analyst for the Asia Pacific at international forex firm Oanda, wrote in a note.

“[But] deeply discounting prices always brings consumers out to play, no matter how bad the economy might be,” he added, referring to bargain-hunters searching for those must-have high-tech gadgets or glitzy high-end fashion brands.

Behind this annual ritual, is the Alibaba name. With more than half of the domestic e-commerce market in China, the global juggernaut that Jack Ma built dominates the online landscape.

Still, the country is feeling the pinch from the fallout of the 19-month long trade war with the United States and the battle against rising debt levels.

In part, this is also down to Beijing’s long-term plan to adjust its economic model as the country switches to high-value, high-tech production linked to a thriving services sector and backed up by consumer spending.

But for now, the aftershocks are causing problems. Already the downturn has rippled across a broad range of sectors, from retail spending to industrial output.

Big-ticket items such as new car sales have stalled after dropping for the 16th consecutive month in October, while residential property prices have also suffered as consumer debt spirals.

“Many real economic entities are struggling amid weak domestic demand,” Premier Li Keqiang told a meeting with provincial governors, which was reported by the cabinet-style State Council earlier this month.

As the merry-go-round of trade talks continues between Beijing and Washington, economic “risks and challenges abroad” dominate the conversation.

Those “risks” have filtered through to the real economy and exposed frailties in the corporate sector as GDP growth in the third quarter fell to a nearly three-decade low of 6%.

But while giants such as Alibaba saw sales growth jump 40% in the last quarter and profits more than triple, vast sways of China’s private sector are feeling the pain as exports slow and consumers tighten their belts.

“Trade tensions [have] hurt the most vibrant sectors in China, namely the private sector,” Zhong Wei, a  professor of economics at Beijing Normal University and the director of the Research Center for International Finance, said.

“As a rough breakdown of their proportion of the overall trade volume, the private sector accounts for 50%, foreign companies for 30% and SOEs [state-owned enterprises] for 20%. The private sector deals mainly in processing manufacturing, which is the key component of trade, hence the high proportion of private sector contribution,” he continued.

“But that also underlies that China is not in an advantageous position in the value chain. Trade tension has inflicted harm on privately-owned businesses in China. On top of that, due to the supply-side structural reform launched in 2016, low-end capacity is being phased out. The combination of the two factors has created a far more challenging environment for China,” he added in a commentary for China-US Focus.

Against this backdrop, Singles’ Day resembled a red-letter day for the retail sector. Even if was for just 24 hours.

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