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How some companies hope to bring China's livestream shopping trend to the U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last fall, TikTok launched its shopping platform. It's called TikTok Shop. And one of its features is this live shopping feed, which has been called QVC for Gen Z.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED TIKTOKER #1: (Shouting) Ah, woo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED TIKTOKER #2: Five more gone just like that, guys. You hear them? They - it's not just...

CHANG: Brands and influencers livestream for hours selling skincare products, housewares and clothes. And so far, 250,000 merchants use this platform. But it could get a lot bigger very soon because Chinese companies have started partnering up with TikTok Shop for one very important reason - to teach American influencers how to sell. Caiwei Chen wrote about this for the global tech publication Rest Of World. Welcome.

CAIWEI CHEN: Thank you, Ailsa, for having me.

CHANG: OK, I want to start in China for a moment because livestream shopping there is really booming. Like, you wrote that last year, a quarter of all online sales in China took place through livestreams. Is that right?

CHEN: That's right. It actually started in 2016 before the pandemic, but it didn't see its big break until everyone was quarantine at home and cannot go out to the stores to shop. When the practice started, a lot of livestreamers started becoming huge influencers themselves. You can see people even have, like, little segments of showing off their pads, celebrities talking or just livestream sellers bantering.

CHANG: It's like Chinese QVC.

CHEN: Exactly. And later in the pandemic, when brands and companies and businesses see how successful livestreaming has become, a lot of brands - even big international brands like Este Lauder and Nike - are hopping on the train.

CHANG: Right. And Chinese companies, they want to replicate the success that you're describing in China here in the U.S., where livestream shopping, I mean, it's only just getting started. So these Chinese companies, I understand, they're actually giving their playbook to American influencers who want to do this kind of thing professionally, right? What are we seeing so far?

CHEN: In the past few months, we are seeing a lot of Chinese studios - they're not necessarily owned by Chinese nationals - but studios that hire Chinese experts. In these studios, Chinese experts are teaching the American influencers how to effectively sell online. And it has become a sophisticated profession where there are, like, written rules and recipe of how to engage with your audience when they're not responding. For example, the U.S. livestreamers will ring a bell every time a purchase is made. That is directly from the Chinese e-commerce playbook.

CHANG: (Laughter) And why is that such a good tactic? Why is ringing a bell going to get people to shop more, you think?

CHEN: So I asked them the exact question, and the livestream agents - they told me because you are in a virtual space, unlike an offline store. So when customers see other people making purchases, they are more likely to think, oh, this product must be good. I need to buy that too. But in a virtual space, there is no immediate way to signal that. So they just start ringing the bell.

CHANG: So do you think livestream shopping will ever get as big here as it has in China?

CHEN: I think that is a great question. And I think both TikTok and these early adopters of livestreaming, it's their shared hope. I do think in the U.S. it's slightly harder because there is an existing supply chain and shopping network. People go to malls, people go to different types of stores not just for shopping itself, but it's also a social experience. And TikTok Shop, although it's trying to connect with a lot of U.S. brands, it still suffer from some reputation of Chinese product being cheap counterfeit and low quality. So I do think that is a problem that TikTok and the suppliers have to solve if it wants to see a continued growth in the U.S.

CHANG: So interesting. That is Caiwei Chen, a reporter for Rest Of World. Her piece is called "Chinese TikTok Experts Are Teaching Americans How To Sell." Thank you so much, Caiwei.

CHEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.