The success of Chinese livestream shopping has been well documented since it exploded early in the pandemic, and what looked like a stop-gap solution has developed into an established retail channel. Livestreaming was a straightforward evolution in the well-developed Chinese social-retail ecosystem dominated by well-compensated KOLs (key opinion leaders) who transitioned from posting on WeChat or Weibo to livestreaming on Douyin, broadcast from the empty stores and malls during the pandemic shutdowns. By contrast, the pandemic spurred a shopping boom in the U.S., but livestreaming shopping played a small role. That may be changing.
Digital Brands Pioneer Streaming
Amazon Live began streaming in 2019. A recent visit to the landing page displayed a schedule of livestreaming events that read like a TV Guide with specific times and dates and a library of older streams available for viewing on-demand. Early programming has been generally pedestrian. A few talented streamers stand out, mostly selling cosmetics among the clamor of hot pots and lawn furniture demos. I would rank the humdrum streams a grade below an archetypical QVC broadcast.
Not every brand is suited for the conversational, interactive exchange and entertainment aspects required for successful engagement from customers. Additionally, the host must align with the brand. As with much of social media and branding in general, the brand affinity must feel genuine.
Amazon is taking some of its pandemic bounty and applying it to improving the livestreams it programs, actively working to up-market its content and the influencers it attracts. The retailer introduced an audition-based influencer program aimed at recruiting successful social media personalities with large followings. They added YouTube stars Shea Whitney (1.2 million subscribers) and Cassandra Bankson (2 million subscribers), among others. They have developed livestream-specific program features aimed at strengthening Amazon’s appeal to both creators and consumers. These include The Drop, a partnership between brands and fashion influencers to create limited-edition clothing collections; and Storefront, a feature for top-tier creators to monetize their content by featuring their favorite products across the marketplace, earning commissions on sales conversions.
Facebook introduced “Live Shopping Fridays” in June 2021. Brands livestream shopping events on their Facebook pages or in Facebook’s Shop Tab. Recent streamers include Abercrombie & Fitch, Sephora, and Gen Z bracelet darling, ZOX. The brands showcase products while engaging directly with shoppers in real time. Facebook has eased the purchasing process by integrating Shopify’s single-click ShopPay function.
Instagram Live, Snapchat, and TikTok produce shoppable content via streams and YouTube is currently developing a product.
Legacy Retail Jumps In
- Nordstrom launched a destination live shopping channel that requires a (trackable) sign-up to attend the listed events, confirmed with an emailed link. A typical schedule includes notices of future livestreaming shoppable programming, plus in-store events for wine tasting dinners, dance fitness classes offered by fitness-wear brand Zella X Dance Church, and storytelling events with style experts from Nordstrom.
- CNBC reported on a Bloomingdale’s livestream featuring Jimmy Choo Creative Director Sandra Choi, “The livestreamed event, organized by the department store, ran for about 45 minutes, during which Choi highlighted some of the biggest trends she saw in footwear this spring. She eventually pivoted to discuss inspirations for post-pandemic fashion and gave viewers a first look at Jimmy Choo’s upcoming summer collection. Participants who signed up in advance received a complimentary cocktail and macarons, sent in the mail ahead of the event, to sip and snack on while watching. The first 50 people who bought a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes during or immediately after the event were told they’d receive a personalized fashion sketch as a token of appreciation. There was a separate gift basket and Bloomingdale’s gift card giveaway for everyone who watched the livestream until the end.”
- Also streaming is Bloomingdale’s owner Macy’s. Macy’s streaming content is wrapped into the Style Crew program combining content from Macy’s stylists with brand collaborations. Macy’s has joint streamed with media and fintech partners. WWD reported on Hauliday by Cosmo x Klarna, a 48-hour, multibrand presentation that streamed from Macy’s Herald Square flagship store and featured, “exclusive deals across fashion, apparel, footwear and beauty from Macy’s Inc., Haus Laboratories, Rebecca Minkoff, Saks Off 5th, Express Inc., Bluemercury, Foot Locker Retail Inc. and other retailers and brands.” Macy’s is an investor in Klarna, the payments platform which participated in the event.
- Walmart fought hard to buy a piece of TikTok, winning out over the app’s other dance partners, Microsoft and Oracle, all while battling a government kerfuffle. Walmart is now regularly streaming content, some of it live, on Gen Z preferred platforms: Snapchat and other livestream shopping apps including PopSugar and NTWRK.
- Saks and other large retailers are steaming live shopping events. Many small to medium retailers saw streaming as a lifeline during the pandemic. Those who had a knack for it have continued, expanding a local retail footprint to a national one.
Coresight Research confirmed the muscular growth in this channel. In Coresight’s Livestreaming E-commerce in the U.S report, they estimated that the livestreaming market was worth $5 billion in 2020. eMarketer published statistics on the rising popularity of livestreaming that support Coresight’s findings. Looking forward, Coresight expects the livestreaming market in the U.S. will grow to $11 billion by the end of 2021, and to $25 billion by 2023.
While the trajectory for livestream social commerce appears promising, challenges abound including:
- Engaging Content. With Netflix, Twitch, and television a click away, quality in livestream production is critical to success. The Jimmy Choo/Bloomingdale’s livestream rewarded viewers for registering, purchasing, and watching the entire stream. Even a brand with a committed fan base finds it necessary to incentivize viewers in exchange for their time.
- Brand Alignment. Not every brand is suited for the conversational, interactive exchange and entertainment aspects required for successful engagement from customers. Additionally, the host must align with the brand. As with much of social media and branding in general, the brand affinity must feel genuine.
- Attracting an Audience. Livestreaming platforms attract browsers, but the appointment-based and weekly scheduled streams tend to draw a more committed customer.
- Live is Live. Technical difficulties, aggrieved customers, and talent going off on a tangent are risks to the medium.
It’s Time to Upskill
Caveats aside, immersive, brand-specific content can be captivating when combined with an energetic, genuine, and effective influencer. Livestreaming won’t be a substitute for other shopping channels, but it is likely to take its place as an established marketing platform in the U.S. The lessons retailers are learning during the current experiment will result in an industry that is more resilient and prepared for any future business disruptions — which will surely arise.