Livestream shopping could be the future of retail

Remember when people you knew actually used to shop on TV channels like HSN and QVC? The new frontier of online shopping might look a lot like those channels first popularized in the 1980s updated for a post-pandemic world. Livestream shopping is giving brands and influencers a video platform for showcasing and selling their wares while chatting with customers who are, in turn, interacting with each other. By 2023, the U.S. livestream shopping market is predicted to be worth $25 billion, according to Coresight Research.

Influencer Abigail sells clothing on Galaxy. (Courtesy Galaxy)
Influencer Abigail St. John sells clothing on Galaxy . (Courtesy Galaxy ) (Galaxy Live)

Unsurprisingly this growth is being fuelled by Gen Z and millennials, two cohorts that have always lived with online shopping. Facebook research published in September shows that 55% of Gen Zers and 62% of millennials say they would make a purchase during a livestream event when brands launch new products.

Ryan Detert, the CEO of Influential (an influencer marketing company), explains the ecosystem of livestream shopping. “There are really only two main levels of livestream shopping. Level one is all the big platforms like Instagram Live, Amazon Live, Tik Tok. Twitch is the king of streaming, not so much retail — though you can purchase things like virtual skin for your avatars there. Level two: Making their own ecosystem is TalkShop.Live — a livestreaming platform that has a better buildout out for e-commerce. Celebrities (people like Howie Mandel, Oprah, Garth Brooks) sell their own books and other products as well as big, multi-brands companies like Procter & Gamble, use this platform to make their livestreams.”


There are also smaller apps like Verishop and Whatnot trying to find their niche in the growing U.S. livestream market. Many of them have received VC funding or built partnerships with more established retailers.

Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, says, “Livestream shopping is a mix of live-streaming and social commerce. With livestream shopping, you have an expert giving you their perspective on the product. We have been trying to accomplish this in e-commerce with chat bots and virtual product views. but it does not quite compare to seeing, touching and using the product IRL. Livestream shopping provides a bridge between shopping on a static e-commerce site and purchasing in person.” Despite its hurdles, livestream shopping is already pulling in some very big names to sell their products.

The country-music star Reba McEntire chatted with fans and sold albums and memorabilia on a recent TalkShop.Live event. (Courtesy TalkShop.Live)
The country music star Reba McEntire chatted with fans and sold albums and memorabilia on a recent TalkShop.Live event. (Courtesy TalkShop.Live) (TalkShop.Live)

I recently watched an hour-long Reba McEntire album and memorabilia sale on TalkShop.Live. The main part of the screen is taken up by a cozy couch with McEntire and a saleswoman chatting about what’s on offer — box sets, autographed books, and posters. On the right side of the screen are rows of products that can be bought with a click, and scrolling comments by viewers. Every so often, a producer in the room would call out questions from the shoppers, and McEntire would answer. The process and feel is very similar to HSN and QVC, so many people familiar with that form of buying will feel right at home. If you miss the livestream, you can still watch a recording and buy the products.

Of course, not all livestream shopping events have the high-wattage star power of Reba McEntire, or professional production values. There are plenty of young women hawking embroidered sweatshirts and thrift-store finds on Galaxy in their dorm room, and sneakerheads who offer the latest Nike drop on livestreaming app NTWRK while lounging on their couch.

BAODING, Feb. 2, 2021 -- Saleswomen promote stuffed toys via livestreaming at an international trading center in Baigou New Township, Baoding City of north China's Hebei Province, Feb. 2, 2021. Traders in the Baigou New Township have launched an on-line shopping event for the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year, where price discounts, electronic coupons, and purchase subsidies are offered to attract more buyers for their commodities such as suitcases, garments, and stuffed toys. (Photo by Feng Yun/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Feng Yun via Getty Images)
Saleswomen promote stuffed toys via livestreaming at an international trading center in north China's Hebei Province. (Getty Images) (Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images)

Roots in China

Livestream shopping took off in China almost a decade ago and is wildly popular there, according to Niki Chen, founder and CEO of Why C Media Group, a Toronto-based company focused on social commerce. “North America is still in its infancy as compared to China,” she says, “which has more than 100,000 multi-channel networks and an expected market size of about $350 billion this year.” The numbers aren’t nearly as big in the U.S., but they’re growing fast.

Mara Greenwald is the managing director at Mindshare, a global media and marketing company, and she explains her perspective, “We work with lots of brands trying to figure out how to start livestreaming, how brands can take advantage. It’s such a big trend in China, but we haven’t really figured out how to make it work seamlessly here. In China, most of the sellers’ platforms were launched through Alibaba, which was already a shopping network and a platform that people trusted. Not every retailer in the U.S. has built out their retail platform successfully.”

The title card for an Amazon Live event. (Courtesy Amazon Live)
The title card for an Amazon Live event. (Courtesy Amazon Live) (Courtesy Amazon Live)

What’s coming next

But North American brands and consumers, shaken up by the pandemic, are catching up quickly, according to Elissa Quinby, a former Amazon exec who now serves as a senior director of retail marketing at Quantum Metric, which works with some of North America’s biggest retailers like Lululemon and Bass Pro Shops.

“COVID has accelerated all online trends by three to five years. So many different audiences are trying new things, willing to go beyond their comfort zone. Other companies are starting to get there, making an online selling platform part of their decision-making process,” she adds.

“Right now, livestreaming is so focused on apparel, but I think beauty and health are going to get a lot bigger,” says Quinby. “You’re going to see things like trainers interacting with clients: Picture doing squats and having someone critique your form. Having a professional watching on the other side will become the norm in online selling.”

Why C Media Group’s Niki Chen says that North American brands will need to solve some technical issues before livestream shopping is as seamless as buying stuff on Amazon or eBay. "The potential growth of the market is huge, but the real challenge for the ecosystem is lacking a complete supply chain that links payment, delivery, marketing, and content creation.”

But for Elissa Quinby, livestream shopping gets at a truth that many shoppers have known for ages — sometimes shopping is more fun with other people. “Livestream shopping is an old idea spun on its head,” says Quinby. “It’s super-smart — people want to shop socially and have a storytelling experience, and livestreaming delivers.”