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Live Shopping in China vs. the U.S.: Consumer Perspectives

Sally Zhang
Sally Zhang

In the first part of this series, I broke down the current state of live shopping, the factors that make it so successful in Asia, and the technological barriers to adoption in the U.S. 

Now, to conclude, I’m sharing exclusive interviews that illustrate the Chinese vs. American POV on live shopping. What’s the appeal for different Chinese consumers, and how does live shopping fit in to their daily routines? Will Americans ever be able to shake off memories of QVC? And most important of all, how can your business approach the live shopping future? Keep reading to find out.

Live Shopping in China: What Motivates Consumers to Watch?

Yulin: The determined discount hunter

Yulin just started her first job, as a teacher in Guangzhou. In order to live in the big city on her current salary, she says, she needs to be a smart shopper. She looks for high-quality products at discount prices, and often checks reviews on Xiaohongshu before making a purchase. But live shopping is where she finds the best deals—so she always tunes in.

Like millions of other Chinese, Yulin follows livestream superstar Li Jiaqui on WeChat, where he posts daily live shopping previews. Each preview lists the products to be featured, in the order they will appear on the livestream. “I check the notification almost every day,” Yulin says. “If I find any products that I’m looking for, I will join the stream around the time he talks about that product. Then I’ll purchase from his Taobao store using the link he drops during the live shopping event.”

For Yulin, missing out on a live shopping purchase isn’t just a matter of inconvenience. She knows that without the steep discounts offered during live shopping events, she can’t afford certain items she wants. As a result, she’s committed to the hunt: “I once watched a live shopping event for four hours straight, just for this one product I wanted, because the host didn’t follow the order from the preview.”

This live shopping preview on WeChat displays the event schedule and product list.

Mingzhen: The ultimate stan

Mingzhen, a Beijing college sophomore, is a self-described superfan of pop singer/actor Lu Han, aka Luhan, aka “the Justin Bieber of China.” She’s bought all his albums. She collects his merch. She’s cheered at his concerts. And because of her flexible school schedule, she can watch any time Luhan appears on a livestream.

“Usually, the host will interview Luhan about his latest album, play some games, and have a real-time fan Q&A session first,” Mingzhen explains. “Then they dive into a brand that Luhan endorses, and they start talking about a collection of products.” These collections include exclusive goodies and special gifts, like limited-edition items with Luhan’s signature.

Mingzhen is not concerned about researching the things she buys during these events. For her, live shopping is impulse buying, just part of the price of being a stan. It’s all worth it for the excitement, and to feel closer to Luhan: “The livestreams are definitely a must-watch! The real-time Q&As let me better connect with him. Every superfan’s dream is to get the special editions with their favorite celebrity’s name on it.”

Star power x 2: Li Jiaqi and Luhan teamed up to co-host a Gucci cosmetics live shopping event.

Chong: The window shopper 

Chong works for an ad agency in Shanghai, so she knows better than most how brands promote their products. She takes a minimalist, rational approach to live shopping, following her favorite brands on Taobao and spending more time browsing than buying—at least for now.

“I usually join live shopping events from small brands I like when I have free time at night,” Chong says. “Most of them are just the owners explaining product details while a model tries on different products. I’m curious about their new collections, and want to check size and fit on a real person.”

It’s this detailed insight and sense of personal attention that appeals to Chong. The experience, she says, is more like shopping in a brick-and-mortar store than normal online shopping. “Live shopping offers me a closer look at everything. I can see the clothes or lipstick on a real person to inform my purchase decision. It makes me feel that the brand is thinking of me first, instead of passively showing me a bunch of product pictures and letting me pick things by myself.”

While modeling a new purse, this livestream host answers viewers’ questions in real time.

Live Shopping in the U.S.: What Are Consumers Looking For?

Steve: The discerning fashionista

Steve lives in Boston and enjoys scouring the city’s vintage shops for one-of-a-kind designer finds. He also researches items online to make sure they’ll fit in with his wardrobe, especially when it comes to luxury fashion. Like many Americans, his view of live shopping was shaped by memories of QVC. As a result, “I don’t associate live shopping with something bespoke, unique, or luxury,” he says. “That original perception of live shopping kind of cheapens the product.”

Nevertheless, because he keeps up with the fashion world, he recently joined a live shopping event hosted by luxury retailer Moda Operandi on their own website (powered by the Bambuser app). Designers discussed the inspiration behind new pieces, and items became available for preorder during the event. “Even though I wasn’t buying anything, it was a peek into the designers’ brains,” Steve says. “It was informative, and the shopping aspect was just a bonus.” He also saw the appeal of real-time interaction: “It’s great for people who have ultra-specific questions. You don’t have to wait for a customer service rep.”

Like Mingzhen, the pop fan in Beijing, Steve zeros in on the idea of live shopping as a means of connection. “Everybody wants to feel a little closer to a brand they love. Especially for brands in the luxury space—they’re often viewed as inaccessible, an aspirational product. Going live with the person behind the product brings it down to earth and makes it more human.”

Moda Operandi’s website promotes seasonal live shopping events and includes detailed instructions about how they work.

Katie: The social shopper

Recently relocated to New York City, Katie is a young professional whose social life is deeply intertwined with social media. Her favorite influencers include Tefi and Tinx: “Anytime I need new jewelry or presents, I literally just scroll their pages and shop,” she says. Because both women are most active on Instagram Stories, Katie checks their profiles regularly so as not to miss anything.

With so many influencers to choose from, Katie gravitates toward those whose bodies are similar to hers, and those who showcase quality items and diverse brands. That personal touch matters: “I’d watch live shopping on Etsy,” she says. “Because it’s handmade, I want to see more angles of an item. Not so much on Amazon. I don’t expect good quality from Amazon, and it’s never a purchase worth watching a livestream for. It’s more like, ‘I need this one thing to detangle my hair.’”

For Katie, influencer participation and seamless UX could persuade her to try live shopping. She’s lukewarm on the idea of tuning in to a livestream from a brand, even one she likes, but if one of her faves was hosting, she’d be more interested. “It’s that mix of entertainment and shopping, not just a brand trying to sell me stuff. If I could watch an influencer I like talking about something, and they linked to the products so I could check out instantly, I’d probably do it.”

Tinx models a Victoria’s Secret PINK sweater in an Instagram post announcing her participation with a VSP back-to-school event.

Anne: The value-driven mom

Anne’s shopping habits changed when her son was born a few years ago. With less time and money to spend at “fun” stores, she had to focus on tracking down household essentials and kid gear for good prices. Before making a purchase, she often checks sites like Wirecutter and the Strategist to be sure she’s made the right choice. Since the pandemic, however, online window shopping has become a form of relaxation. “It’s an easy distraction. I enjoy browsing things like skincare, clothes, books, vintage… things for me, not my kid!” 

Because she’s on a budget, like teacher Yulin, Anne is most interested in live shopping as an avenue for savings. “There would have to be significant discounts, more than the usual deals I can find,” she says. Lately, in order to save money and reduce waste, Anne has turned to resalers like ThredUp and TheRealReal (or Facebook Marketplace) to find quality secondhand items. “I could see getting into live shopping there,” she says. “The product photos aren’t always as clear as I’d like. And there’s a whole community of people who care about shopping this way.”

When it comes to checkout, Anne appreciates the convenience of PayPal, Venmo, or saved payment information at her favorite sites. Extra steps are a turn-off: “I’m not sure I want to set up a different payment thing or download a new app just to try live shopping,” she says. “If it were on a website or app I already use, great. If not, I don’t know that I’d seek it out.”

Key Takeaways for Businesses and Brands in the U.S.

Expand your influencer strategy

Chinese influencers have become expert live shopping hosts, and that’s the next step for influencers in the U.S. Part and Sum strategist Rachael Sherman is confident that the ubiquity of shoppable Instagram Stories will help U.S. consumers adapt to live shopping. “People don’t realize that they’re almost doing live shopping when they’re looking at an influencer’s Story,” she says. “It’s a timestamped product video with a swipe up link to buy. That’s not real-time, but it’s close. For influencers who do this well, I can see it shifting easily to live. Brands should look for partners whose skills are adaptable to hosting.”

Offer deals, discounts, and drops

No matter how great your content is, it’s still important to offer perks for tuning in. Principal of Growth Elliott Hasiuk says the combination of limited supply and high demand could be an ideal way to introduce live shopping in the U.S. “Think about Yeezy, Off White, and Supreme. There’s a lot of anticipation before new releases. Live shopping events could build on that excitement. And in that way, even if people associate live shopping with cheap stuff, higher-end brands could actually do it.”

Use familiar framing

Americans may not fully grasp livestream shopping just yet, but chances are they’ve seen a pop-up shop, fashion show, or product demonstration. Evan Petto, another Part and Sum strategist, says brands can bridge the understanding gap by pitching their events along similar lines, especially now that people are accustomed to “attending” events online. “Calling it a live styling session, a behind-the-scenes look, a pop-up, or a trunk show can elevate your live shopping event and make it easier for shoppers to connect the dots.”

Focus on discovery first

That knowledge gap also means that conversions may take time. Rachael suggests that brands focus their initial live shopping efforts on discovery and warming prospects. “People won’t adapt overnight,” she says. “So, in the beginning, get them comfortable with the idea of discovering products live. Track link clicks from the event and retarget that audience. Gather all the data you can: At what point in the event are people dropping out? When are they most engaged? What content resonates? Use this information to craft an effective full-funnel approach to your subsequent live events.”

Be consistent—and think big

As with any social media, posting content consistently pays off. The good news is, since live shopping is still an emerging format, there’s a lot of opportunity to experiment, try new things, and figure out a game plan that’s unique to your business. Remember, it’s not just about sales: Live shopping is a way to deepen engagement with current customers, connect with audiences around the world, and to generate brand-new categories of data to inform the rest of your marketing strategy.