Welcome to the Live Shopping era

Nine months ago, Zoreen Kabani was consumed by an overwhelming sense of ennui. She felt stagnant and frankly bored with the job she had held for the past nine years. So the 35-year-old financial adviser switched to another firm – then promptly quit two weeks later. It wasn’t where she was working, she realized, but what she did.

It wasn’t until her brother introduced her to it What not, a live-streaming shopping platform-cum-online marketplace that co-founder Grant LaFontaine describes as “eBay meets Twitch,” as she found her calling. For the first few months, Kabani was a spectator, tuning in to live streams and getting to know the streamers before going live for the first time in June. In the months that followed, Kabani had sold an estimated 6,000 products, gained a following of nearly 10,000, and earned $12,000 in his first month alone, and remarkably $50,000 in the first three.

“I fell in love with it right away, and now what’s not is my life,” says the Dallas-Fort Worth-based streamer, who adheres to a strict Monday through Friday schedule, going live at 10:00 PM ET to an audience ranging from 85 to 200 people, selling clothes that she sources from anywhere, from online sales to thrift stores and other people’s closets. “I treat this like my corporate job. I’m constantly shopping—and that’s been my thing: dressing up and looking cute. It’s something my customers look for, to see what I’m wearing.”

Her story—one of succeeding in live streaming as a one-woman show and making a living from it—serves as a testament to what many predict will be the next frontier for e-commerce: the live shopping era. We’ve already seen the live feature across social media, namely Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. But as live streams exist right now, from a shopping angle, they’re everywhere. No one has definitively cracked the code, so to speak. This means they all exude different vibes, formats and formulas, depending on the streamer, fixture and platform.

Amazon recently relaunched its livestream platform (the tech giant’s first attempt in 2016 was met with little fanfare), increasing the feature by partnering with its influencer program (including, for example, Lala Kent and JoJo Fletcher) to ensure success. YouTube hosted “YouTube to You,” a weeklong holiday event featuring shoppable shorts and long-form videos featuring more than 30 content creators and brands—one of which included a joint partnership between Ulta Beauty, Tula Skincare, and YouTubers​.Manny MUA, Amber Scholl, May Phamand Allyiah’sFace to a highly produced live stream (complete with a stage, a director and teleprompters) that felt like QVC meets HSN for the digital age. On Whatnot, some streams resemble auctions (super chaotic, super high energy, with bids, giveaways and all). And on Verishopan online retailer that boasts a list of more than 4,000 independent brands, others are incredibly low-key and no-frills – a streamer who simply talks to the camera.

“Livestream shopping has been a hit internationally for some time now, but it’s starting to make an impact in the US market during Covid as our palate for video content evolved,” says Kendall Becker, fashion and beauty trends editor at the retail analytics platform Trend Analytics. “Searches for livestream shopping are flagged as ‘low’ on our platform. While it’s such a new trend, we’re certainly seeing it before the consumer begins to define exactly how to search and interact with new forms of content. Social media posts about ‘livestream shopping’ has begun to ebb and flow over the past few months, increasing up to +700 percent compared to the volume of posts on the topic last year.”

In fact, livestream shopping has historically been more of a phenomenon internationally, especially in APAC – or more specifically, China. It can be traced back to May 2016, when Chinese retail giant Alibaba launched Taobao, linking live streaming with e-commerce for the first time and heralding “a new chapter in sales.” And the numbers are astounding: The first 30 minutes of Alibaba’s 2020 Singles’ Day shopping event on Taobao brought in $7.5 billion in sales, according to McKinsey. Which begs the question: will the US follow in China’s footsteps?

“Live shopping in China has this huge celebrity and influencer ecosystem behind it, so while I expect the US landscape to follow a similar path, we’re in the early days of consumer adoption and awareness – and these things take longer than people think,” says LaFontaine, who originally launched Whatnot to give hobbyists and collectors of Funko Pops, sports cards and comics a place to collect, sell and buy. But Whatnot has since expanded to 80 categories, with fashion as the fastest-growing segment .” Nothing is ever one-to-one, but I don’t think it’s crazy to say that in five to 10 years, 40 or 50 percent of e-commerce sales will be through video. It will look different because it will definitely start somewhere else.”

verishop

Courtesy Verishop

It is worth noting that shopping is only live streamed in China accounts for around 10 percent of the country’s gross merchandise value, although it is expected to rise to 24.3 percent by 2023 (still a relatively small percentage). If we were to think about how that would translate to the e-commerce infrastructure in the US, Imran Khan, co-founder and CEO of Verishop, believes that live shopping will not necessarily replace a certain way we buy goods, but instead will act as a supplement to how we approach procurement. “Live shopping becomes part of an overall e-commerce experience. When a live stream ends, we take it, cut it into mini-clips and put them on product pages – we see an almost 40 percent improvement in conversion, which means that a product with a video review will have a 40 percent higher conversion rate compared to a product without a video,” says Khan, noting that so far only a small percentage of products have a video (although that number is marginally higher in the beauty category). “I think live streaming is going to be an important part of storytelling; if you can build a video library, reduce your bounce rate and improve your conversion rate, that’s huge.”

What live streaming ultimately solves are most of the pain points that come hand in hand with e-commerce. In real life, there is not only the joy of discovery, but there is also the tactile experience of knowing exactly what you are buying.

“We’ve all been in that trap where you click on a pair of black pants and all you see are black pants,” says Brandon Holley, former editor-in-chief of Lucky and fashion manager at Shop truea marketplace of more than 2,000 brands that combines artificial intelligence with human expertise in the hope that instead of abandoning previously purchased products, suggests recommendations much the same way a glossy magazine would. In other words, to provide the discovery that is missing in the e-commerce landscape. “I really believe that e-commerce has a listening problem. And I think live streaming is a huge opportunity because that discovery is live – and you have the immediate reaction. It’s an exciting place for e-commerce to embrace a little more.” (Currently, Shoptrue is in beta mode, and its plans to launch livestream are currently in the pipeline.)

A unique shopping memory sticks out to her: Holley once walked into a store and the clerk sold her a green coat for $4,000 that she would never have bought otherwise. “I was convinced it would change my life — I wore it so much. I loved the green coat,” she recalls. “That discovery —it is what is missing in e-commerce.”

Of course, a video (livestream or otherwise) can’t quite replace the touch and feel of an actual garment, but it can come pretty close—by proxy, that is. And Scholl, a 29-year-old LA-based YouTuber, hopes to be the go-to person for her 3.6 million subscribers who rely on her for recommendations. (In fact, Bridget Dolan, managing director of shopping partnerships at YouTube, says YouTube is the most trusted platform for its creators.) Although Scholl hasn’t launched regularly scheduled livestreams on her channel yet, she already knows hers would be “something I want to see as a consumer. If it’s a necklace, I want to see the stone up close, whether the chain is adjustable, what kind of clasp it is, what kind of material it is, what the mood is,” she says. “It gives gives me a distinct advantage as an extreme shopper – I know what people want to know. The biggest appeal is seeing products in real time – it’s more real than a picture on a website.”

shop sand

Shop true

Courtesy Shoptrue

She’s right: Livestreams give viewers direct access to streamers (and by extension, the product itself) through real-time interactions. And because of that, it fosters kinship, trust and, on a larger scale, community. For Kabani, streaming is less about selling and more about establishing connections. In the few months she has been live on Whatnot, she has formed friendships with both other sellers and her customers.

“I always joke that I’m a loner, but when I’m at Whatnot, it doesn’t feel like I’m working. It feels more like a hangout with my besties than anything,” says Kabani, who is constantly brainstorming creative ideas ways to keep your followers hooked, whether through sweepstakes, themed streams, giveaways or collaborations. “And I think people get invested in you as a seller, so my people, they support me and my dreams.”

She compares live streaming to reality TV in that it is a different form of entertainment. Because unlike Instagram or even TikTok, the biggest, undeniably delightful feature of tuning into a live stream is its raw, unedited, unfiltered, off-the-cuff spirit. That in itself is the reason why so many believe the medium will continue to take off.

“That’s why we’re watching SNL– it’s high stakes. Everything could go wrong at any moment. And it’s a chance for experts to really do their thing because you can see them react in real time. You can’t fake it, and if you’re good at what you’re doing, it’s really compelling entertainment,” muses Holley. “But I think live streaming honestly suffers from the same thing as e-commerce, which is that it’s very intrusive—I call it ‘slicking the boot.'” If we can get out of this nascent phase, this QVC formula , and make it more personal and interactive, it has the potential to be really exciting.”

I always joke that I’m a loner, but when I’m on Whatnot it doesn’t feel like I’m working.”

There is no doubt that the rise of live shopping will give content creators significant power based solely on their ability to move products. But Khan warns that it is a double-edged sword: “Yes, it will give content creators more influence to drive transactions, but it will also create more transparency because you can measure it immediately through sales and numbers. It’s different than pushing a brand experience, which is very opaque.”

Scholl finds that particular aspect absolutely fascinating, knowing exactly when her followers bought a product or when they’ve dropped off—all based on something she’s said. “If you’re passionate about shopping like I am – I can talk about shopping for hours – and you love it, you can convince others to love it too,” she says. “If you love watching live shopping, it never gets old. People will keep tuning in.”

LaFontaine echoes this sentiment. Shopping has always been a pastime, and it will continue to be. “When I was a kid, I used to hang out at the mall and buy things, so with live streaming, people will probably spend even more time to shop,’ he says. “It is human behavior to have fun, to shop, to be entertained – those desires will not go away. There is no doubt that live streaming can change the way people shop.”

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