Is live shopping set to become a hit in the UK?

Live shopping events have become a multibillion-pound success story in China. Western brands are watching, learning and starting to adopt this highly interactive sales channel
Model posing for live stream in front of a light ring

On 11 November 2020, Chinese livestreaming platform Taobao Live sold £5.3bn-worth of goods – in less than half an hour. Granted, that particular period marked the start of its campaign for the country’s annual Singles Day shopping festival, which totalled £52bn in sales, but such an eye-popping sum is still a clear sign of the power of live shopping events in China. 

Typically featuring slick interactive content enabling viewers to ask the hosts questions about the goods on show, these broadcasts are often fronted by social media influencers. Live shopping events have caught on in a wide range of sectors, selling products ranging from shampoos and skin creams to cars and even houses. In 2019, products purchased through the channel accounted for 4.1% of all ecommerce sales in the world’s second-largest economy, according to iResearch. Boosted by the pandemic, the format’s share is expected to hit 20% by 2025. 

In a sea of communication, the platform is reinjecting human interaction back into the consumer experience

Its success has not been lost on western brands, given the steep rise in the number of live shopping events held across Europe in recent months. Could the format achieve anywhere near the same level of success here? 

According to Bambuser, a Swedish firm that licenses its video-shopping software to companies including Samsung and Ted Baker, it’s already well on its way. From a standing start in 2019, when Bambuser introduced its software to the market, the business has “gone from no clients to more than 140”, reports its chief commercial officer, Sophie Abrahamsson. 

“We ended Q1 this year with more than 2,800 shows and a near-global presence. Our designs now cater to 35 languages,” she says. “We’ve gained traction in a way that even we hadn’t expected. We were convinced that this was the future of ecommerce, but what we’ve achieved so quickly has taken us by surprise.” 

Integrating interactivity and entertainment into ecommerce

Shortly after the first national lockdown was imposed in 2020, Sam Jones co-founded OOOOO, a UK-based shopping app that hosts streams across its network. Previously based in Hong Kong, he watched the format “explode” in China and wanted to bring it to the West. The business now has offices in Oxford, Shanghai and São Paulo. 

“I think the technology will definitely be successful in the UK,” Jones says. “It’s here to stay, no question.” 

For OOOOO, the focus has been on “trying to get as close to the source as possible”, by which he means hosting events filmed by the brands themselves, rather than using influencers to present them. “We’re selling from a fashion show, a factory in China, a warehouse in the East End of London or even a market stall in Camden Town.” 

Cosmetics and fragrances have been among the firm’s top-performing product categories so far. A recent show focusing on perfumes sold 2,600 items, worth a total of £35,000, to an audience of 11,000. 

The format has caught the attention of international beauty companies such as L’Oréal, which has hosted a range of live shopping events, including a stream presented by make-up artists Sasha Simler and Sabrina Wassel for its Urban Decay brand. 

“This event allowed viewers to interact with each other and the presenters, asking questions about products as they’re shopping,” says Lex Bradshaw-Zanger, CMO for L’Oréal in the UK and Ireland. “We’ve begun scaling up this offering across our portfolio and have seen strong results for engagement and sales, both during and after the broadcasts.”

We were convinced this was the future way of doing ecommerce, but that extreme traction we’ve achieved so quickly has taken even us by surprise

He continues: “In a sea of communication, livestreaming is restoring human interaction to the consumer experience, offering personalised advice that is often critical in marketing beauty products.”

Fashion has been another early adopter of livestreaming. Swedish label Monki, for instance, started hosting shopping events on its website back in October 2019. The H&M subsidiary reports that these have proved an effective way to “engage more with our customers on our own platform, to deepen the relationship and to have an open and transparent dialogue”. 

A laggard by comparison, Tommy Hilfiger hosted its first shopping event in Europe and North America in May 2020. A spokeswoman for the company says that this was “a huge success”, prompting the brand to put on 10 further events. The momentum has been incredible,” she adds. “With every new livestream we see increased engagement and traffic to our website.” 

Although the beauty and fashion industries have pioneered the livestreaming format, it has the potential to work in all manner of sectors, according to Abrahamsson. Her firm, for instance, has played its part in events focused on food, cars, pets, toys and even interior design services. 

Outdoor toys specialist Wicked Vision is working with OOOOO. The company’s founder and CEO, David Strang, says that livestreaming “gives us an additional route to market, enabling us to future-proof our sales without having to rely on the high street. But it’s also interactive – and that’s the key, because it enables us to replicate that invaluable in-store experience and use the power of live demonstrations, which are hugely compelling.” 

Of course, it isn’t simply a case of replicating the format that’s worked in China. For one thing, Abrahamsson notes, ecommerce in the West can be conducted on many different platforms, whereas in China the market is far less fragmented. This requires western retailers to adopt “more robust” and flexible approach, she says. 

China’s livestreaming technology is more advanced, but western social networks are catching up quickly, providing tools that retailers can easily adopt. In October 2020, for instance, TikTok joined forces with Shopify to create shoppable video adverts. Two months later, Instagram announced that its Reels video-clip feature would have a shopping function. 

“In six to nine months the format will be even more mainstream here,” predicts Abrahamsson, who adds that the secret to getting livestreaming right is for sellers to “be consistent, listen to their audience and create content that speaks to, and adds value for, that audience”.

Drop till you shop

Long before western brands began experimenting with live shopping events, many were already using so-called drops to create a similar sense of immediacy. 

A concept derived from Japanese streetwear culture and still strongly associated with fashion, a drop is the release of a limited-edition product, often conducted on social media. It’s a tactic that works. When rap artist Kanye West created a line of trainers for Adidas in 2017, for instance, the Yeezy Boost 350 V2 (in “semi-frozen yellow”) sold out in less than 30 seconds after its drop on social media. Nike, H&M and Target have all used this approach too. 

“It’s no surprise that drops work – a key principle when establishing a premium or masstige brand is to capitalise on the scarcity factor,” says Melanie Welsh, founding partner at the Strat House marketing consultancy. “The appeal for consumers is the buzz of selecting and snaring the limited-edition pieces that will become the most coveted. Let’s face it: not all hyped products take off.”

What’s more, drops encourage consumers to use other sales channels, including live shopping events, according to Chloe Cox, social strategy and insights consultant at Wunderman Thompson Commerce. 

“Because drops indicate a limited release, there’s a level of exclusivity and cachet that will have customers flocking to your website,” she says. “And, by increasing brand awareness and contriving a one-off, viral demand, they will encourage new and existing customers to access live shopping events.”