What is Alibaba 1688? It holds a party for young people seeking ‘cheap substitutes’

On this year’s Children’s Day on 1 June, Alibaba 1688 organised a ‘Poor and Happy Night’ (穷开心之夜) party in Chengdu, which was also livestreamed on Bilibili (China’s YouTube). From the guests to the programme, everything was geared towards young people’s preferences, and this party was aimed at young consumers who pursue ‘cheap substitutes’ (平替) and happiness.

1688, Alibaba’s wholesale platform, became popular among young people because of its affordability after the Covid-19 pandemic, successfully opening as a B2C business. Its C-users are mainly post-95s and post-00s from first-tier and second-tier cities, with the majority being females of which college students, young new mothers and white-collar workers have become its key user groups.

The ‘Poor Happy Night’ party can be regarded as 1688’s brand party. The event was attended by star guests who are popular among young people, such as singer Dazhang Wei, singer Gong Linna and anchor Yang Di, as well as some BiliBili influencers and members of the general public.

The content of the programme captured the characteristic of ‘cheap substitute’, not only awarding ‘Cheap Substitute Characters of the Times’ to the influencers who started the ‘cheap substitutes’ boom, but also to the users and factories that accompanied 1688 along the way. Anchor Yang Di and models who attended wore a variety of factory goods to advocate for Chinese factories. Such an entertaining and relaxing party helps 1688 and young consumers to align in both directions.

‘Cheap substitute’ is not a consumer downgrade or the ultimate low price. According to C-end users of 1688, it is the same model, source, factory, technology and materials, but the price is cheaper. In 2020, because there are source factories, and no intermediaries to earn the price difference, 1688 became popular on Xiaohongshu (RED) through the search for ‘cheap substitute’, harvesting a number of fans. The Xiaohongshu topic #1688 shopping sharing#, in 2024 reached 2.95 billion views, with the number of notes close to 2 million.

QuestMobile’s data shows that in the first half of 2020, 1688’s monthly active users increased by 82.14% year-on-year. Young people favour 1688 for three reasons: it’s cheap, practical, and has a large inventory. Socks for less than 50 cents RMB, toothpaste for 70 cents RMB, snacks from Sam’s Club at 30% off, discounted clothing from big brands, and so on. Young people are raving about it, calling it worth it.

In the analysis of Alibaba’s fourth quarter earnings in 2023, CEO Wu Yongming announced that 1688 will be elevated to the status of Alibaba’s first batch of strategic level innovation businesses, alongside Goofish, DingTalk, and Quark. In March this year, 1688 opened three shops on the Taobao platform: ‘1688 strictly selected’, ‘1688 enterprise self-pick’ and ‘1688 industrialists selected’. Subsequently, these shops will be integrated into channels like ‘Tmall’, ‘Tmall Supermarket’, and ‘Taobao factory’, mainly selling 1688’s source factory goods.


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