Presents and gifts with sale tags on red background

What’s the value of shopping festivals?

David Roth of WPP’s BAV says that shopping – and shopping festivals – contribute to a balanced economy and, from a societal perspective, have a strategic role to play

Shopping festivals are nothing new. Ancient Greece got it right. The agora – central spaces in city-states where social interactions took place – were melting pots of merchants rubbing shoulders with the people, philosophers, politicians and so on. These meeting places were what popular culture – of the time – was all about. A similar phenomenon arose in China and other advanced economies.

This is how trading and commerce – before shops and high streets – started. And this provides us with the provenance of the shopping festival. The Agoras (and their like) probably kicked off the experience economy, as well call it today.

Then came another step change – the desire to send gifts during religious festivals – and then we overlaid seasonality. So festivals have been born out of a rich mixture of custom, culture, need, desire, beliefs and behaviour – all influenced by the seasons.

Perhaps it is the seasons that help us make most sense of all this today, especially as markets evolved into shops and high streets. But, at its heart, this is about selling.

Over the centuries, shopping experiences have been used to move surplus stock at the end of one season before the beginning of the next. And price incentives – sales to release working capital – became common and much anticipated in the physical retail environment. These married up nicely with the seasons, and with religious festivals. They have become part of culture.

Then comes disruption

Black Friday was probably the first of the big shopping festivals that operated outside traditional sales, seasons and religion. It was manufactured – in the same way as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day – to generate excitement among the buying public and shift retailers out of the red and into the black.

Clearly it has now moved online too. Black Friday is still about discounting to convince people to come into the stores and buy. It has just become increasingly digital.

Meanwhile, in China in the year 2000, Golden Weeks were launched. The first is for Chinese New Year in January or February and the second is National Day Golden Week around October 1. These are several days of consecutive holidays that enable the burgeoning middle classes to travel and consume, thereby stimulating the economy while bringing people together. Golden Weeks soon became mega shopping festivals.

Of course, the turn of the millennium corresponds with the advent of digitisation and ecommerce. Then, when Jack Ma – Alibaba’s co-founder – noticed how un-inclusive Valentines’ Day could be for single people, he came up with Singles’ Day (on 11 November) and the idea of self-gifting was born. And it is not just about purchase; Singles’ Day is a mix of culture, entertainment, socialising and all those other activities we associate with markets and festivals.

Not about sales but launches

Singles’ Day takes us away from the western idea of shopping occasions as an opportunity to discount for the purposes of moving unsold stock. It is all about launching new products and creating fresh customer experiences.

It is also highly digitised – often totally digitised – and is emerging as possibly the most important sales period for any brand anywhere in the world. This has all happened within the last 15 years.

While digitisation may have powered this breakthrough, it is also about inclusiveness – it is all about including anyone who is not in a couple (although couples clearly enjoy it too) and would otherwise be excluded from enjoying Valentines’ Day.

Are there lessons retailers in the West could learn from this phenomenon? Absolutely. How shopping festivals are being used to combine the physical and the digital to drive a seamless holistic experience that drives a connection between consumers and brands is what we are seeing in China. This results in that all-important positive, immersive experience.

Digitisation creates connections

As shopping festivals have moved online – particularly in China but also increasingly globally – linking retailers with consumers is a natural consequence, but consumers are also being connected with each other by enabling wish lists to be visible, thereby revealing the hinterland of the digital shopping environment.

And through online shopping, families, friends and acquaintances are becoming increasingly connected and are influencing each other in terms of what to purchase to create collaborative buying experiences

In China, this has had a major impact on a society that has been built around a one-child policy, that is now ageing and has not historically had access to consumer goods. Bringing families together has been instrumental in delivering a more equal shopping experience. And, importantly, it is entertaining. Shopping festivals in China include galas, game shows, celebrity appearances and hours of non-stop entertainment – all constructed to launch and sell products.

Importantly, what we are seeing in China – and across Asia as the format has migrated – is a shopping experience that is designed to create an emotional experience. This takes us back to the original markets, especially at the time of the larger festivals.

All of this powers economies. Shopping is an economic stimulant – we all saw what happened to the retail sector during Covid. We need these experiences if we are to balance our economies and if businesses are to grow.

David Roth


published on

09 November 2023



Related Topics

Showing up for the shopper

More in Commerce

Purple perspex panels growing in size from small to large, with a sunset in the background and water reflection in the foreground

Media in India: the future is now

Brands pursuing the Indian market must focus on personalised experiences and data-driven strategies

Corridor curving off into background with blue neon lights

Multinational companies must have an India strategy

The Indian market is hugely attractive to brands, but multinational companies must have a bespoke India strategy

Sun setting into a lake with a pink sky in the background and orange and yellow flowers in the foreground

Where there’s women’s health, there’s wealth

There’s huge economic advantage in closing the women’s health gap, and yet still this gap is still formidable