Could live stream shopping change online retail for good?

Merchants selling their products speak inside a live stream booth during Alibaba's annual Singles' Day online shopping event - Qilai Shen /Bloomberg
Merchants selling their products speak inside a live stream booth during Alibaba’s annual Singles’ Day online shopping event – Qilai Shen /Bloomberg

The shopping channel as formula has been largely unaltered since it emerged in the heady consumerism of Eighties America, hooking in thousands of viewers desperate for everything from a new fridge to a necklace.

Legions of smiling salesmen extolling the virtues of hoovers, ovens and hairdriers on the likes of QVC might feel like a throwback, but they have long proved immune to the sweeping changes wrought elsewhere by the internet age.

Now, however, the digital world is finally catching up.

Live shopping, as it is known, allows for browsers to view a far wider variety of wares through streaming.

“Think of it as a reimagination of QVC,” early adopter David Feng said during a live TV interview on Bloomberg two years ago. In 2019, Feng’s live shopping app Packagd was snapped up by Facebook, which paid an undisclosed sum for a firm with five staff that was last valued at $21m (£16m).

As novel as it sounds, live shopping has long been a hit in China, where it was estimated to be worth $63bn last year according to Coresight Research. Consumers on Alibaba’s Taobao Live can scroll through all manner of items for sale. BMW salesmen show off the latest model while foodies munch on bags of dried shrimp in a constant advertising blitz.

Kuaishou, a social media rival to TikTok, has more than 100m people tuning into live shopping streams every month. China’s most powerful shopping streamer Viya is reported to have made a record $385m (£301m) in profit in a single day and once helped Kim Kardashian sell 15,000 bottles of her perfume in a manner of minutes.

“We are way behind in the west,” says Cathy McCabe, former Burberry and Jaeger technology chief. “It has always been common to buy on WeChat and Alibaba and it really underpins the impulsivity, immediacy and convenience that we know drives purchases – you can see the product and you get energy and a vibe which you don’t get from just browsing alone.”

The sluggish response may be explained by analysts’ failure to predict the extraordinary rise of the mobile.

China bypassed desktop computing, with many consumers experiencing the internet for the first time on a smartphone. Meanwhile, western retailers have spent years investing and perfecting the shopping experience for a bigger screen. Toggling between a YouTube video recommending mascara and several e-commerce websites to compare prices is a painful experience on mobile, and now the websites themselves are focusing entirely on buying through your phone.

Smartphone sales 2019
Smartphone sales 2019

Culturally, the importance of haggling in the east sits well on social media. Hugely popular Chinese app Pinduoduo offers discounts for social buying, encouraging groups to purchase at the same time and share their experience online. This gives Facebook, Instagram and Google a distinct advantage because they can merge social media, peer reviews and payments in one place.

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of video shopping in the UK, with brands such as Ace and Tate offering consultations to find glasses frames that suit a browser’s face. John Lewis has also launched personal styling appointments, with results that suggest the trend may be here to stay.

Retailers traditionally might have secured purchases from 20-25pc of those visiting a bricks and mortar store, but video consultations are converting 60pc of customers, says McCabe, who is now chief executive of consultant Proximity Insight and has clients including John Lewis and fashion chain Matches.com.

But if Amazon Live, a shopping service that launched in 2019 to little fanfare, is anything to go by, simply setting up a live stream on a website is not enough.

This week, Google revealed it had dipped its toe into the water with a new app named Shoploop, a TikTok style video service where users publish 90-second clips to sell beauty products. The service is only available on a smartphone and aims to be entertaining while it serves up sales pitches.

Google is acutely aware of how popular videos of women doing their make-up can be. Its video platform Youtube features thousands of beauty tutorials that have racked up hundreds of millions of views. The firm may have missed a major advertising opportunity with YouTube, but it is aggressively making up for it with Shoploop, which not so much blurs the line between user content and advertising but morphs them unapologetically into one. Scroll down and there are hours of influencers sharing clips spraying themselves in fake tan, tutoring viewers on facial massagers and showing how to create “the perfect curl” with the latest hair tongs.

“Before, when we had big campaigns for Chanel or Carolina Herrera, we were spending thousands of dollars to create beautiful photos,” says Laura Barrera, fashion branding expert at Gig Miami. “Now, brands want to invest in social media with an everyday girl just trying on the items.”

Much to the tech titan’s frustration, a small Los Angeles based start-up called Popshop Live has already beaten Google and Facebook to live shopping after launching last month. The app, which has secured $4.5m in funding, gives small business owners hour-long slots to live stream a shopping spree. One seller claimed she can make more sales during a single PopShop Live streaming event than in a week at the two stores she owns.

It is clear that to keep up, retailers will need to adapt – and fast.

“It is like reading a comic book versus going to the cinema,” says Allen Adamson, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Once consumers get used to video, they are only going to want to shop that way.”

Perhaps rivals to the TV shopping channel have finally hit on a winning formula.

Will live shopping take off? Share your view in the comments section below.

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