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December, 4, 2016

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Now, shopaholics double up as Ali's marketing squad

Meng Cuiyi spent almost $90,000 at Alibaba's online mall in the past year. The 33-year-old restaurateur buys pretty much everything there-Burberry apparel, La Mer skincare products, furniture, groceries and more. After Alibaba's annual Singles Day sale last year, Meng's purchases were piled so high outside her Shanghai apartment her businessman husband could barely get in the door.

Meng's lavish spending habits earned her an invite to Alibaba Passport, or APass, an exclusive rewards program. APass is a mashup of Facebook, Amazon Prime and the American Express Black Card. Its 100,000 members get the usual perks-deals, trips, personal service-but are also encouraged to join online communities of shopaholics who blog and talk up Alibaba.

Rolled out about two years ago, APass has helped Alibaba persuade the well-heeled shoppers trawling its Tmall and Taobao shopping emporiums to keep spending.

That's crucial because Alibaba is struggling to maintain rapid-fire growth.

Just last week, Singles Day sales grew at half the pace they did the year before.

Meanwhile, the company is trying to ward off growing competition from rivals like JD.com, which is starting to attract urban big-spenders.

"Standing still is not an option because competitors are nipping at their heels," said Duncan Clark, founder of investment advisory firm BDA China and an early adviser to Alibaba. "It's very much worth their while to take care of the high rollers."

Like any premium rewards program, APass pushes exclusivity by setting a seemingly high bar for membership. To make the cut, a customer must drop more than $15,000 a year on Alibaba's e-commerce sites, though the company says members typically spend more than $45,000.

Spending is just one criterion. Shoppers also receive a user score, based in part on the frequency and credibility of their interaction with other customers. The higher the score, the more likely they are to be invited to join APass.

"APass members love to share," said Hai Wang, Alibaba's head of customer experience and innovation. "Every day in our APass Members Zone, a lot of members are sharing their daily life stories, shopping tips and showing off their shopping lists. A good number of APass members are verified bloggers."

Meng is Alibaba's dream customer. "I talk to other APass members every day," she said.

"I never actually buy anything from physical stores unless I'm going out with friends or something."

Meng's loyalty got her invited to the inaugural APass annual meeting, one of 50 members selected. Held in May at Mandarin Oriental hotel in Shanghai, the splashy event included a buffet dinner, lucky draw and an awards presentation-at which Maserati was voted Most Beloved Brand. Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tung gave a speech.

Rewards buy loyalty and then are turned into marketing opportunities. In early September, Alibaba took 10 APass members on an all-expenses paid, nine-day vacation to Italy where they visited a Maserati factory, La Perla's flagship lingerie store and vineyards operated by vintner Mezzacorona. Portions of the all-expenses-paid trip were streamed live on the Tmall app and Youku Tudou, a video site Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma acquired last year.

The company said the vineyard tour was viewed 400,000 times and boosted sales.

Public displays of loyalty from its most elite customers also could help Alibaba buff its reputation.

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