A host sells hot dry noodles, a popular dish in Wuhan, Hubei province, and other food products on a livestream broadcast from the 29th China Food Expo on Dec 3. [Photo by ZHAN SONG/CHANGJIANG DAILY]
Around 7:30 pm one evening, Liu Kun, 33, adjusted lights in his mini "studio", switched on his tripod-mounted smartphone that has a sophisticated built-in camera, logged into his Taobao account, and began yet another livestreaming session to sell products.
Liu owns Qiyu Jewelry in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, home to about 73 percent of the world's lake pearls. In the first half of this year, Liu's business was severely affected by COVID-19. Instead of shutting down his store, Liu shifted focus to online sales.
"I spent 3,000 yuan ($459) to buy professional lighting equipment to ensure jewelry gets properly displayed online. I spent another 8,000 yuan on a new phone with a better camera, and a few thousand yuan more to convert a bedroom into a studio (which, when livestreamed, became a virtual store). In the first three months, there weren't many people coming to my virtual store and it was very frustrating," Liu recalled.
Liu said there was a time when there were just three consumers in his virtual store, which discouraged him so much he wanted to quit e-sales and do something else in life.
"There were no interactions and I didn't even know whether they were watching, but I still needed to introduce my products repeatedly to avoid awkward silences and give myself some work to do. I started to think why there's such a big difference between my store and the influencers' stores, and began researching on how to attract more visits and turn them into transactions."
Luckily, Liu's work paid off and his livestream attracted about 600 visits. "I'm confident about the prospects of sales via livestreaming. My online store has become an important business channel. My offline store has also started to rebound, thanks to successful control of COVID-19 across the country."
Supported by innovative online channels and the accelerated shift toward online consumption amid the pandemic, e-commerce via livestreaming is gaining popularity as a new shopping platform.
According to a Nielsen report, market size of livestreamed e-commerce is expected to reach 961 billion yuan in 2020, which will account for 10 percent of e-commerce in China. As of Nov 4, livestreamed e-commerce attracted 265 million users, accounting for 47.3 percent of livestreaming users.
Justin Sargent, president of Nielsen China, said: "Online channels keep evolving, driven by a massive customer base and increasing competition, and this has resulted in a shift from consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer, to vertical e-commerce, cross-border e-commerce, social e-commerce, online-to-offline superstores and livestreamed e-commerce. Livestreamed e-commerce is gaining in popularity as an alternative platform for brand marketing and is positioned to be another frontier of e-commerce."
According to the Nielsen report, 54 percent of the shoppers surveyed were female, and the rest male. In terms of city demographic, Nielsen's survey found that livestreamed e-commerce was more popular in lower-tier cities, which accounted for 55 percent, as compared to first-and second-tier cities, which accounted for 45 percent.
As for categories of products, personal care, food, and household cleaning products are the most popular purchases made on livestreams. The other popular categories include snacks and beverages, clothing and footwear, and beauty products.
Livestreams of key opinion leaders or KOLs and celebrities are becoming increasingly popular as well, as consumers tend to attach credibility to their recommendations. Some 56 percent of Nielsen survey respondents said they would prefer to buy products recommended by KOLs or celebrities, while 34 percent were indifferent.
Given the importance of domestic consumption and consumption upgrade, the ability to influence consumers and boost sales is now seen as a prized skill that commands a premium price in the talent marketplace.
The booming market has persuaded even the government and private companies to cooperate with top-ranked livestreamers and livestreaming platforms. For instance, Shanghai has announced it will step up efforts to promote livestreaming as an emerging industry and rolled out supportive measures.
The city also offered Li Jiaqi, one of China's top livestreamers who is now a celebrity of sorts, residency status in June. That is recognition for the fact that he commands as many as 37.96 million fans on Taobao.
Yiwu, a county-level city in Zhejiang province, one of the world's largest wholesale markets of commodities, also pledged to offer financial rewards and subsidies to related companies, e-commerce bases, service providers, and hosts starting from Jan 1.
The city held 127,000 rounds of livestreamed product sales with sales totaling 15.4 billion yuan in the first 10 months of this year. Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and Guangzhou, Guangdong province, also rolled out a series of supportive measures to promote the development of livestreamed e-commerce.
"Livestreamed e-commerce also plays an important role in combating poverty in some rural areas, and local governments have stepped up efforts promoting the industry with China close to the goal of ending absolute poverty by the end of this year," said Zhou Minliang, a senior researcher at the Institute of Industrial Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Investors are also optimistic about the industry's prospects. From January to October, the number of newly registered livestreaming e-commerce companies in China was 2,364, compared with 681 for the full year 2019, according to Qichacha, a provider of business data, credit information and analytics on private and public companies.
"Going forward, there will be more retail technology and business models on the horizon. The government also reiterated the importance of pursuing supply-side structural reform in this year's Central Economic Work Conference, which sends a signal that more measures to boost consumption are in the pipeline. Livestreamed e-commerce, as an important channel, will likely see further development," said Wei Jigang, a research fellow at the Development Research Center of the State Council.