Updated from Nov. 10 with additional information.
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s (BABA) annual Singles' Day event is quickly becoming the stage for one of the Chinese internet giant's most important strategic visions.
Singles' Day, Alibaba's annual online shopping bonanza celebrated on Nov. 11, raked in a record $25.3 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) this year, up from last year's record of $17.8 billion, according to the company. The company registered a whopping $1 billion in GMV in its first two minutes on Saturday, and $11.9 billion in GMV in its first two hours.
WATCH: Highlights From the 2017 11.11 Global Shopping Festival pic.twitter.com/SiuK2BvwdP— Alibaba Group (@AlibabaGroup) November 11, 2017
Each year, the company has enticed more and more shoppers via glitzy galas and promotions, along with a growing network of luxury brands. Sales figures have continued to balloon, making Singles' Day the world's largest online shopping day -- significantly bigger than both Black Friday ($3 billion last year) and Cyber Monday ($3.5 billion last year) combined.
"Expectations are high," said Alibaba President Michael Evans in an interview with TheStreet just ahead of the kick-off to this year's event. "We think it's going to be a terrific result."
Alibaba shares rose 0.7% to $186.41 on Friday, close to an all-time high. Its stock has more than doubled year to date, and last week the company issued another stellar earnings report in which revenue grew by 61% year over year.
Singles' Day has become more than just a day for online discounts. For Alibaba, the event has now become a way to showcase its "New Retail" strategy, an idea that Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has been promoting since last year. New Retail aims to connect online and offline businesses, bucking the belief that physical stores will be left in the dust of digital e-commerce.
According to Evans, incorporating New Retail into Singles' Day has pushed the event to even greater heights in terms of the scale of orders, logistics, transactions and payment volume.
"This day tests us and every one of the pieces of our ecosystem," said Evans, who has spearheaded much of Alibaba's international growth strategy. "We're going to get a glimpse of what the future of retail is really likely to be."
Now in its ninth year, Singles' Day is bigger, more global and more innovative than ever, Evans said. As many as 140,000 brands are showcasing deals for Singles' Day, about 60,000 of them international ones. About 7,000 U.S. brands are represented, including Gap (GPS) , Nike (NKE) , Macy's (M) and Lululemon (LULU) .
Two new features are key to how Alibaba is executing its New Retail strategy on Singles' Day. The company is opening up 100,000 "smart" pop-up stores around China, converting physical stores into hubs that recommend products and offer discounts to shoppers. Customers can also use virtual fitting rooms to try on clothes and cosmetics.
In what is perhaps Alibaba's most ambitious task, the company is also using Singles' Day to bring local mom-and-pop stores online. Alibaba's "Lingshaotong" initiative, which translates as "Retail Integrated," will help digitize more than 500,000 convenience stores.
"It's bringing them into the ecosystem of 11/11, but also allowing them to participate in the New Retail concept," Evans explained.
With all the hype around Alibaba's Singles' Day, it seems hard to compare with Amazon.com Inc.'s (AMZN) own self-created shopping day, Prime Day. Singles' Day raked in an enormous $17.8 billion in sales last year, while Prime Day, which began in 2015 to mark the anniversary of Amazon's founding, only grossed between $1 billion to $2.2 billion in sales, according to Fung Global Retail & Technology.
For now, Prime Day isn't something that Evans said is on Alibaba's radar. When asked if Alibaba would ever launch a Singles' Day in the U.S., he added that the company would need an American e-commerce platform, which it doesn't currently have. In lieu of that, Alibaba's main focus has been on courting U.S. brands to sell in China.
"We always say Alibaba is the gateway to China," Evans added. "Most brands recognize that coming through our platform is a pretty effective way to connect with Chinese consumers."
That isn't to say that Alibaba is completely ignoring U.S. tech giants. Like the Silicon Valley juggernauts, Alibaba is also interested in harnessing the latest tech du jour on its platform, including augmented reality, virtual reality and, most crucially, artificial intelligence.
Alibaba is using technology such as machine learning to make its platforms smarter and more useful for both consumers and brands by serving up personalized shopping results based on user data.
"This is very unique to our platform from Amazon," Evans noted. "We give data to merchants. We don't keep it to ourselves."
Those investments in machine learning are what continue to attract more users to the Alibaba platform. It's starting to show up in the company's financial results, too.
"All of this is good for our business and our platform, which is connecting people more and more," Evans said.