Taobao's absolutely gigantic day of sales

Two days ago the Chinese website taobao.com held a discount promotion to celebrate what's known as 'double sticks day' in China. In a single 24hr period, they conducted 19bn RMB (US$3.06bn) of business.

The figure is a world record - apparently, the closest competitor was 2011 Cyber Monday in the US, where total sales across all retailers was $1.25bn (comScore). Taobao already ranks 12 in the list of top global websites (Alexa), but the record sales mark a highwater-point for one of modern China's greatest success stories.

The day in stats

So some interesting figures:

  • Total sales: 19.1 billion RMB
  • In the first 1 minute, 10m people had visited Tmall
  • Top 5 provinces by #sales: Zhejiang, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Beijing
  • 1hr after the promotion opened, the first package was received.
  • After 12 hours, 109 stores had made more than 10m RMB sales.
  • The two biggest mens clothing brands : Jack & Jones and GXG
  • Tmall made 13.2bn RMB, taobao made 5.9bn RMB
  • There were 213m registered accounts were active on this day (40% of China's internet users)
  • 105m orders - av. order value of 180RMB
  • 3 stores made more than 100m RMB on the day.
  • There were 7m mobile accounts active in the first 1 hour.
  • By 2pm, 520m RMB of sales had been made via the mobile interface.

Technical challenges

The first thing springing to my mind is the technical challenges of such a day.

Doing some guesswork, there were 105m orders in a day. Imagining that each order involved at least 15 page loads, that's 1.5bn page loads in a day, each page complete with maybe 20-30 photos, images, static file requests, complex session variables. The homepage load is 1.8MB, and a TMall product page can be anything from 1MB to 5MB depending on the images uploaded by the seller - that should give you an idea of the sheer number of static files being served.

Of course, that's totally made up, and hopefully a better techie than me will make a better guess (or maybe taobao will release specific stats themselves!). My guesses don't account for browser caching, people who didn't buy anything, crawlers and bots, or the important fact that many people were clicking hundreds of times to 'steal' (抢) a good deal or limited stock item.

By comparison, Google serves somewhere around 11bn search results a day (ComScore), and Amazon made $48bn USD in 2011 (wikipedia) - taobao.com doesn't blow either out of the water in raw numbers except for its world record two days ago, but it's one of the gang, so to speak.

Interestingly for devs, taobao released a custom version of nginx called Tengine a while back, and has also released an open source file system product called TFS. The subsite code.taobao.com has many projects available to view that power the site's features.

Reflections

If I were a serious dev, taobao would definitely be on my target list of 'dream companies' to work for. We tend to ignore the 'chinanet', what with all the journalism focussed on Silicon Valley, but taobao should be on everyones radar.

They are dealing with some of the largest technical challenges available on the planet. They don't really need to deal with censorship in the same way that QQ or Weibo do (they are a store, not a content provider or blog platform), so you wouldn't need to compromise your morals necessarily to work their. They are using world class technology, and open-sourcing a huge part of it. Plus, it could be a chance to learn Chinese, live in China and experience something unique.

They also occupy a unique position - in China, individual retailers rarely setup their own eCommerce website. Taobao is the online commerce destination. A few big competitors exist (360buy, DangDang) but they genuinely pale in comparison.

But first and foremost, they are just an awesome brand - in the last 2 years, my wife and her friends have been heavy users, and I haven't heard a single word of complaint against the site. That's pretty powerful - how many of the Silicon Valley giants can say that?

Edit: based on a few comments on reddit/hackernews - the figures are from Taobao's own press release and stats. They've been widely published across the Chinese internet, national news channels and international media in some places. I personally am not sceptical at all - taobao is a single website that takes the place of all the giant marketplace websites AND independent online retailers that we see in the US/EU, and it's serving a massive population of people who love shopping and see getting a bargain as a personal triumph (!). 19bn RMB equates to 86RMB per user, or 180 RMB per order, which are low considering the spending power of consumers in China these days.

Notes on stats: (1) source for stats was official taobao infographic (in Chinese) that you can see here if you have a weibo account, (2) Tmall is asubsidiary site of taobao - its where larger 'official' retailers can setup shop, as opposed to small retailers or individuals selling 2nd hand goods., (3) Taobao knows when a parcel has been delivered because the money is placed in escrow (Zhi Fu Bao) and the buyer must actively release the funds when the parcel is received. Clever! (4) Double sticks day is like Valentines Day for single people in China - it happens on 11.11.

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