U.S. Retailers Scramble to Crack the Code on Livestream Shopping Events

Source: Bloomingdale's PR
  • Amid the Covid pandemic-fueled rise in online commerce, retailers from Bloomingdale's to Petco are giving livestream shopping a more serious look in the U.S., along with other innovative tools like shoppable features on social media apps.
  • These technologies have become increasingly valuable, as retailers look to connect virtually with their customers who are stuck at home and glued to their phones and tablets.
  • But livestream shopping remains a risky bet for retailers in the U.S., since the technology has yet to stick with American consumers.

On a recent weeknight, Jimmy Choo's creative director, Sandra Choi, logged into Zoom to broadcast live to dozens of Bloomingdale's customers.

The livestreamed event, organized by the department store, ran for about 45 minutes, during which Choi highlighted some of the biggest trends she's seeing in footwear this spring — chunky, jeweled sandals, and ballet flats with ribbons. 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 had 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.

Bloomingdale's has hosted more than 50 shoppable livestreamed events during the Covid pandemic. It's one way it has tried to reach its customers at home, when they haven't been able to visit its brick-and-mortar stores. The streams have ranged from make-up tutorials to cooking lessons to fitness classes to conversations around sustainability in fashion.

The company, owned by Macy's, doesn't disclose how much sales it derives from each stream, but it said the events are helping to drive purchases and to gather more information on its customers.

"Certainly in the beauty space, demonstrating product is incredibly helpful ... and we're making it easy to make the connection back to buy the products with relatively low friction," said Bloomingdale's chief marketing officer, Frank Berman. "The key for us is matching the right audience with the content that we're putting together."

As online sales accelerate, retailers are giving livestream shopping a more serious look, along with other innovative tools like shoppable features on social media apps. Some brands have already been successful with these tools in markets such as China, where livestreaming was popularized by Alibaba. But in the U.S., livestreaming remains a risky bet for retailers. Even Amazon, which was an early adopter of the strategy, has yet to draw consistently large crowds to its livestream shopping events.

The hope — especially among high-end retailers like Bloomingdale's — is that Americans are beginning to splurge on pricey clothes, shoes, purses and jewelry to show off as they dress up and leave the house again. The behavior, often referred to as "revenge spending," has already appeared in China. Livestreaming could be one way for these companies to showcase their merchandise to consumers who are armed with cash and ready to spend.

$25 billion market by 2023

In the U.S., the livestreaming market was worth about $6 billion last year and could reach $11 billion by the end of this year, according to consumer market research group Coresight Research. It expects the market could eclipse $25 billion by 2023.

That's still far behind China, where livestreaming is estimated to have driven about $125 billion in sales in 2020, up from $63 billion in 2019, according to Coresight.

"We've seen this done this very successfully in China, there's no secrets here," said Coresight founder and CEO Deborah Weinswig. "Livestreaming doesn't have to be hard at all."

Shoppable livestreaming appears to be gaining the most momentum, so far, among American beauty brands. Companies from Bobbi Brown to Clinique to L'Oreal have leaned into virtual shoppable events as a way to test products like lip balm and skin creams in front of customers and entice them to buy the products online, on the spot.

A number of bigger chains are beginning to experiment, too. Nordstrom launched its own shoppable livestream channel earlier this year. In late April, Petco hosted its first-ever livestreamed event on Facebook, which was a mix of a pet fashion show along with a dog adoption drive. The shoe brand Aldo also in late April held its first live shopping event, tapping a celebrity stylist along with a TikTok star to help show off its products.

Nordstrom said its experimentation with livestreaming to sell products is just beginning. It joins a small but growing list of businesses in the U.S. to test a livestreaming platform.
Source: Nordstrom
Nordstrom said its experimentation with livestreaming to sell products is just beginning. It joins a small but growing list of businesses in the U.S. to test a livestreaming platform.

Underpinning the interest from retailers is the endorsement of tech giants who have either launched or ramped up livestreaming services. TikTok has hosted shoppable livestream events with Walmart, where users can browse Walmart fashion featured by TikTok creators without having to leave the social media app. And Amazon, the biggest e-commerce player in the U.S., has embraced livestreaming on its site, featuring a rotating slate of QVC-style, interactive videos from brands and influencers at nearly all hours of the day.

There are more eyes and ears on retailers' websites than ever before. Even though Americans are likely to spend less time shopping online as they begin to socialize more outside the home, this transition period is an opportunity. Retailers can offer advice on what to wear or how to apply new makeup looks. 2021 will be a year for retailers to seize the moment.

Weinswig said a key reason why livestreaming may soon gain momentum, particularly with younger consumers, is because of the friction it can remove in the shopping process. During a livestream, shoppers may be able to ask questions and see various sizes and colors in real time. That means shoppers are more likely to keep what they buy, she said.

"Returns are 50% lower when items are bought in a livestream," Weinswig said, citing Coresight data on the matter. "Because of the U.S. consumer's focus on sustainability right now, that is what could ultimately drive livestreaming."

Sales associates at one of Alibaba-owned InTime's store display products for sale during a livestream.
InTime | Alibaba
Sales associates at one of Alibaba-owned InTime's store display products for sale during a livestream.

Prime opportunity

Retailers and tech companies have closely watched Amazon's efforts around livestream shopping, which began in earnest about six years ago.

Amazon first entered the livestream shopping space in 2016 with Style Code Live, a high energy show that let viewers shop while they watched hosts talk about the latest fashion trends. It brought in on-air personalities to host the show with previous experience at MTV's "Total Request Live" and ABC's "Good Morning America." Style Code Live appeared poised to become QVC-style programming for the internet era before Amazon canceled the show, just 15 months after it launched.

Since then, Amazon's strategy has evolved. It now operates Amazon Live, a livestreaming service that lets businesses and members of Amazon's influencer program, both of which Amazon refers to as "creators," show off merchandise and talk directly to shoppers.

Amazon has democratized the ability to start a livestream by launching the Live Creator app.
Amazon has democratized the ability to start a livestream by launching the Live Creator app.

Through an app called Amazon Live Creator, Amazon has democratized companies and influencers' ability to host livestreams. With just a few taps, they can go live to Amazon's millions of shoppers, though only a fraction of those shoppers typically tune into a stream. Under each video is a slideshow of products that can be purchased on Amazon. Influencers earn a cut of each sale made by shoppers who click through to products featured on the stream.

On any given day, there are dozens of Amazon Live streams with a mix of programming that can lean more on the casual or educational side. Influencers might go live to "unbox" their latest haul of beauty products or walk viewers through a full-body cardio workout that also highlights recommended bike shorts, dumbbells and yoga mats, all available to buy with just a few clicks. Another recent stream, which drew roughly 40 viewers, featured a "success coach and mind guide" who provided tips for "navigating life," above a carousel of holistic beauty products for sale on Amazon.

Amazon Live has also become a fixture of the holiday shopping season and Prime Day, Amazon's annual, two-day discount bonanza. As Amazon becomes flooded with markdowns, some of which expire in a few hours, brands will attempt to draw in deal-seeking shoppers by promoting discounted wares on Amazon Live. Last holiday season, more than 700 businesses streamed on Amazon Live, the company said.

Amazon declined to share Amazon Live usage data, such as the total number of companies and brands registered for the service.

Amazon said it encourages creators to stream longer than an hour, so that it gives viewers enough time to show up and sound off in the chat window. In the chat, viewers can talk with the host and ask questions about products featured on the stream. They can also choose to "follow" a business or influencer to get notified when they go live.

The ability to "follow" a creator has lent Amazon Live an air that's similar to social media platforms like TikTok, Alphabet-owned YouTube, Facebook's Instagram or Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. While consumers can't see a creator's follower count, the metric can be important for brands and influencers to improve their visibility on the platform.

Creators are encouraged to stream more frequently to climb internal Amazon Live rankings and "unlock more benefits." For example, to reach "A-List" status, Amazon said companies must amass 2,000 followers and sell either 100 units or $5,000 worth of goods via livestream sales within 30 days. As creators ascend through the rankings, Amazon will reward them in certain ways, like placing their streams on the homepage, as well as near or at the top of the Amazon Live landing page.

As Amazon Live has grown, the platform has become a hotspot for high-profile product launches, author Q&As and, occasionally, celebrity guests like pop star Dua Lipa, whose stream last March racked up 1.5 million views within the first 24 hours it was recorded.

Not all companies that sell on Amazon may have the time or resources to plan and execute livestreams. But businesses that have experimented with Amazon Live say they've experienced significant payoffs.

Coffee and tea maker Quivr has been able to attract a wider array of customers by promoting its nitro cold brew coffee products on Amazon Live. Last year, Quivr co-founder Ash Crawford went live for the first time from his backyard. He talked about Quivr for about an hour in front of 50 viewers. After that, Crawford was hooked and now he regularly streams on Amazon Live.

Crawford has tried out other technologies like livestreaming on TikTok and Instagram, but he found few of them have same buying power or conversion rate as Amazon Live. "It's like clockwork or guaranteed that if we go live and I do a show, sales are increased for the next 24 hours by like 150%," Crawford said in an interview.

Whereas TikTok or Instagram also features a mix of entertainment or catching up with friends and family, on Amazon, consumers are typically on the site with the intent of making a purchase.

"It's about what thing are they going to purchase and how many of them," Crawford said. "So, that's kind of taken that step out of the equation, because on all the other platforms, you're trying to drive them to a sales page, whether it's your own website or Amazon."

Zoe Zhang was a fashion designer prior to starting the U.S.-based livestreaming consulting group, And Luxe.
Source: And Luxe
Zoe Zhang was a fashion designer prior to starting the U.S.-based livestreaming consulting group, And Luxe.

'Another arm of retail'

Many retailers are still waiting on the sidelines to see which third-party livestreaming platform will scale large enough to catch and keep consumers' attention — a platform could potentially rival Amazon's.

That might not end up being a social media site.

"The average social media user is not going into social media for commerce," said Amitaabh Malhotra, co-founder of, which is encouraging retailers to use their store associates to hold livestreams in their stores. "That's where most of the U.S. mindset is when it comes to social media. ... Most people use social media as an entertainment media channel where they're looking at it just to see what's going on."

According to Mark Yuan, who co-founded the livestreaming consultancy And Luxe, retailers shouldn't try to do livestreaming on their own, either.

"If choosing between a brand building their internal livestreaming capability or a marketplace where hundreds of brands and sellers and new influencers are livestreaming ... I will choose the latter," Yuan said. "Because consumers like one-stop shopping, and the convenience of just 'swipe left.'"

There are a number of up-and-coming third-party livestreaming platforms, including Livescale, which has been used by brands such as L'Oreal, Lancome, Tommy Hilfiger and Kiehl's.

ShopShops is another platform that launched in China in 2018 and recently expanded to the U.S., with a kickoff event with designer Rebecca Minkoff late last year.

"The focus on our English program right now is to recruit people who could potentially be livestream influencers," ShopShops founder and CEO Liyia Wu said in an interview. "We're targeting more retail associates. ... Where we create the best, most authentic content, that's where we have very high stickiness of user-ship."

There's also Popshop Live, which started working with the Mall of America to host livestreams last fall.

According to Coresight's Weinswig, malls could become the perfect venue for livestreaming in the U.S., as they have been in China.

"Malls can make use of any vacant spaces and reassign employees to organize livestreaming events while physical traffic is low," she said.

Coresight recently highlighted in a report the mall owner Your Mark, which operates around 40 shopping centers in Hunan province, and started livestreaming during the pandemic. The shopping mall Suntec City also launched Singapore's first livestreaming shopping festival last June.

In China, where so-called revenge spending was especially pronounced as malls began to reopen, luxury brands like Hermes, Gucci and Prada reported a rapid bounce back in sales. Some of these companies could be the biggest beneficiaries of livestreaming.

"I really believe that livestream shopping is going to be another arm of retail, one that the Western world has not caught on to yet," fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger said recently during a virtual panel at the Global Retailing Ideas Summit.

"We've tested it, we've had success with it, and we're going ... fully into it, because I really believe that the consumer is [always] walking around with a mobile device — or they're shopping," Hilfiger explained. "And if we combine all of that together with livestream shopping ... we're able to speak to the consumer, worldwide."

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