Monday, 29 Nov 2021

Mapping Big Tech’s Pursuit of Live Shopping

Livestream shopping has undoubtedly captivated retail, with the phenomenon inspiring companies such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Walmart, Sephora, Moda Operandi and many others to launch initiatives and tests.

Supply tends to move wherever there’s demand, so it should be no surprise that a growing array of providers are lining up to serve them. Today, some of tech’s biggest companies have clearly caught the live shopping bug.

The options abound. While the tech giants typically don’t share hard numbers around their initiatives, one indicator of live shopping’s reach may lie in the Shopify ecosystem: The Canadian company supports live shopping plugins like Bambuser, which just revealed it’s bringing access to its Live Video Shopping platform to Shopify’s more than 1.7 million merchants. 

Meanwhile, players across diverse areas of retail are racing to catch the momentum in other ways. In March, payments company Klarna cohosted a fashion and beauty shopping event centered on livestreaming, and Thirdlove recently joined forces with Betabrand to stage the “biggest bra and panty chat the web’s ever witnessed,” according to the announcement, with purchasing opportunities on the Betabrand website.

But when it comes to shaping the overall live shopping landscape, it likely comes down to Big Tech behemoths like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others.

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Amazon started out with the 2019 introduction of Amazon Live, and over the past few years it has been casting a spotlight on the feature during its Prime Day shopping events. Now it reports that, during the two-day sale last month, “tens of millions of customers viewed Prime Day product demonstrations and try-on hauls, heard directly from creators, and more.”

In 2020, a year after Amazon Live launched, Google introduced its own version in Shoploop, an experiment born of its Area 120 internal incubator. But things on the Shoploop front have remained rather quiet — perhaps laying low amid criticisms of a wanting marketplace and fundamental lack of understanding of how to inspire compelling social content, not to mention communities. Shoploop didn’t even offer a “follow” button for its creators.

The company moved Shoploop from a mobile webpage to a dedicated “Explore” section in Google Shopping in December. But since then, it chose to retire the page. It’s not clear how many shoppers actually visited Explore and whether that factored into its demise, but a Google spokesperson framed the change as a strategic choice.

“We’re focused on building shopping features that meet consumers where they are — including the Shopping tab, YouTube, Search, Image Search and the Google App,” she told WWD. “We decided to wind down the Explore page, where we were testing Shoploop and instead provide a richer experience to consumers and merchants across surfaces.”

Google’s ownership of YouTube is pivotal to its retail ambitions. The video titan, which boasts more than 2 billion users, has been steadily developing shopping capabilities, setting it up as a likely powerhouse in livestream shopping. The company’s first “Small Biz Day” offered shoppable streams from 20 small businesses covering summer picks in fashion, beauty, food and lifestyle products.

Shoploop’s focus on short videos, of a mere 90 seconds, also matches YouTube’s interest in concise clips. It began testing a new offering with YouTube Shorts, making a marriage between the two look increasingly likely.

In social media circles, the tech company that seems the most bullish about live shopping is Facebook, which offers the feature on its own platform and Instagram. The company quietly rolled out a closed beta for live shopping on Instagram in June 2020 before officially launching in August — to the glee of beauty influencers, who immediately jumped in.

The work has culminated in a campaign called “Live Shopping Fridays.” The limited weekly series, which runs until July 16, features beauty and fashion products available for sale on Instagram.

Live product demos could be a powerful tool on a platform like Pinterest as well, since this user base already looks to the site for inspiration. That sort of intent directly translates to e-commerce, and livestreams seem like a lock for the visually oriented environment. That’s not lost on the social bookmarking site. Its test for live events also gave more than 20 creators the ability to sell by tagging items with product pins.

TikTok’s intense interest in e-commerce — which has already spawned features that let creators sell merchandise, in-app sales in Europe and a Shopify integration, among others — has also had the video platform dabbling with shoppable livestreams. Over the holidays, Walmart ventured into new territory by working with the tech company on a live shopping test.

“In December, we partnered with TikTok to pioneer innovation for the fastest-growing digital community. We brought a shoppable livestream experience to U.S. TikTok users for the very first time,” William White, chief marketing officer at Walmart U.S., wrote in a blog post. “During the event, we netted seven times more views than anticipated and grew our TikTok followers by 25 percent.” The big-box retailer was so pleased, in fact, that it went back for more by hosting the “Spring Shop-Along: Beauty Edition” in March on its TikTok channel.

Anticipation runs high that the social video platform will roll out live shopping more broadly. Sibling company Douyin, a China-based short-video platform owned by TikTok parent ByteDance, hit $26 billion in sales last year. Douyin, largely regarded as spiritual kin to TikTok, is reportedly targeting sales of more than $185 billion by 2022.

When reached for comment, the U.S.-based app developer wouldn’t confirm or deny any live shopping plans, instead saying it continues to test new ad tools and that supporting e-commerce with “innovative advertising solutions is a priority,” according to a spokesperson.

One platform that seems to be skipping the trend, at least so far, is Snapchat. The omission is noteworthy, considering it describes itself as a camera company, and it might have made a compelling environment for this type of shopping. But its priorities are focused elsewhere, primarily on boosting shopping through increasingly sophisticated augmented reality tools and virtual try-ons.

Regardless, there’s no shortage of livestream shopping evangelists in the tech sphere and beyond. It even inspires legacy television companies.

NBCUniversal’s version of live shopping launched in 2019 as Shoppable TV. Fundamentally, its approach blends smartphones and broadcast programming to stoke direct conversion, with QR codes as the trigger. It’s been building on that framework since then, most recently adding 3D and AR to the shopping experiences viewers can conjure by scanning on-screen codes.

Stepping into the digital era may be even more critical for Qurate. Its QVC and HSN TV shopping brands pioneered live video retailing, but that prompted several sources to cast them as old-fashioned or outmoded as they touted their own services as a modern online equivalent.

The company refuses to accept that characterization and, in fact, it has been actively embracing newer forms of the live model it popularized.

QVC launched on YouTube TV in January, then followed up in March with an Estée Lauder partnership for livestream video. Most recently, in June, it hosted the Byrdie Beauty Hour on YouTube. Some of these efforts may not bear the requisite “click-to-buy” feature or other mechanism for immediate purchase, but its QVC/HSN Streaming Service app does.

Altogether, the initiatives allow Qurate to promote a robust “multiplatform shopping ecosystem.” The app alone has been downloaded 5.6 million times, as of March 31, and Qurate streams more than 400 hours a week on Facebook Live. QVC had been one of the first major retailers to test the social giant’s live shopping feature, flying in the face of any notion that it’s a dusty old business.

While each giant bears different features, strategies and vectors of approach, they share one thing in common: The desire to become the ultimate destination for shoppable live videos.

The focus on platforms, tools and devices is only part of the equation, however. The other critical factor is the content.

For that, Gartner principal analyst Matt Moorut offered a bit of insight.

“Nordstrom developed their own livestreaming shopping channel, which is great, because they’ve got multiple different products,” he explained to WWD. “Look at the way Moda Operandi is doing this as well — I think they’ve got a really strong proposition, because of the fact that each week, they’ll bring in a different brand creative director or someone like that to actually talk about the products.

“But if you look at the way that any of those brands individually can engage in this, they just don’t have the sort of assortment or range to be able to do the weekly shows that necessarily drive this sort of momentum,” he added. “And so that’s where I think the influencers are probably picking up a bigger portion of the engagement, beyond the department stores themselves.”

He pointed to Tiffany & Co. as an example of what individual brands can do. The luxury company’s live shopping content on Instagram isn’t a steady stream of sales pitches and demos, but acts as a weekly chat series or brand spotlight with conversations that attract viewers. Other companies may partner with larger retailers to become one of their spotlighted brands, instead of going it alone.

“When it actually gets to the commerce level, there’s only so many times that you can kind of talk about a product on a livestream before people drop off and don’t watch the next one,” he added.

Like so much of retail, live shopping is both art and science. The push to deliver the latter is well underway and moving fast — leaving the former to fashion companies and retailers to figure out.

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