Walmart, the world's biggest retailer, is counting on a 6-year-old YouTube star to draw in gaggles of other pint-sized shoppers clamoring for bubble pets, T-shirts and capsules full of lime-green slime.
On Monday, the store chain will debut Ryan's World, a toy and T-shirt line created by the first-grader whose YouTube channel, Ryan ToysReview, gets roughly 950 million views a month.
Among kids, "clearly what's emerged in the last few years is they're watching an influencer like Ryan on YouTube, and he's their authority,'' says Anne Marie Kehoe, Walmart's vice president and divisional merchandise manager of toys. That's "why we thought this was something to really move fast on.''
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At a time when traditional retailers are struggling to woo shoppers, established brands and chains such as Walmart, Nordstrom and Target are increasingly collaborating with social media stars to create collections, build buzz and get real-time feedback on what shoppers think is – and isn't – cool.
"They're not just going with a big celebrity face anymore,'' says Priyanka Dayal, senior content marketing manager for Celebrity Intelligence, which connects businesses to social media influencers and celebrities. "We're seeing that retailers are adopting new tactics to reach out to the younger generation.''
Starting this fall, Nordstrom will carry a new clothing line created by Arielle Charnas, the popular lifestyle influencer behind the Something Navy blog who is checking with her million-plus followers to fine-tune details ranging from fabrics to colors.
Target looked for input from Gen Z trendsetters for its clothing line, Art Class, which launched last year. And Kohl's works with wellness influencers through the site mindbodygreen.
The growing clout of influencers is on vivid display through the growth of Beautycon, which showcases the latest in beauty products and trends. Since its first meeting five years ago when a group of YouTube personalities gathered to trade favorite products and beauty tips, Beautycon has grown to include events in New York and London as well as Los Angeles.
This year's two-day gathering in California, which featured a chat between CEO Moj Mahdara and social media queen Kim Kardashian, was Beautycon's largest. Some 500 influencers took part among the 32,000 attendees, and more than 200 brands were represented, Beautycon spokeswoman Emily Taylor says.
"Now is the first time ever that your next-door neighbor could have a million followers on Instagram,'' says Justin Kline, founder of Markerly, an influencer research company that acts as a matchmaker for brands and social media trendsetters. "It's opened up this whole new world of people who have access to this huge following ... which is really great for brands because it allows them to harness all this clout.''
Initially, it was mostly smaller brands, eager to make their mark in the world of e-commerce, that tended to turn to personalities on YouTube and Instagram for attention.
But old-school retailers are also recognizing that when it comes to connecting with Generations Y and Z, whose household spending is in the billions of dollars, a recommendation from someone they relate to can have far more sway than that of an actor or pop star.
Research conducted in 2016 by influencer marketing firm Collective Bias, which is now owned by tech company Inmar, found 30 percent of shoppers were more inclined to buy a product endorsed by a blogger they viewed as a peer than a celebrity. And among those 18 to 34 years old, 70 percent preferred the noncelebrity. Additionally, nearly six out of 10 shoppers had taken a social media or blog review into account while browsing in a store.
"Someone who is a teacher ... is looking for what other teachers have in their classrooms,'' says Allison Stone, consumer markets manager with consultancy PwC. "This is their lifestyle, what they do every day. It comes from pure experience, and it feels more authentic.''
The legions of kids who click onto Ryan ToysReview are able to have what amounts to a virtual play date with its namesake, tagging along as he treks through Legoland Japan, meets Sponge Bob and tries out assorted toys and activities. Last year, Ryan--whose family will not share his last name – was the youngest on Forbes' list of the highest-paid YouTube personalities, generating an estimated $11 million in 2017.
Now, starting in August, kids will have a chance to buy toys and T-shirts that Ryan picked or helped design. It's the first time that a child YouTube star has created their own line of clothing and toys, Walmart says.
Nordstrom is also putting an influencer-created collection on its shelves. Last September, the retailer collaborated with popular lifestyle and fashion blog Something Navy to offer a capsule collection of clothing, shoes and accessories. The line, Treasure & Bond x SomethingNavy, sold so well that the upscale department store chain says it will now offer a new Something Navy brand this fall.
Charnas, the woman behind Something Navy, has more than 1 million followers on Instagram alone, and Nordstrom is counting on learning a lot from the ready-made focus group that she has at her fingertips.
"Arielle has been sharing different elements of the brand, including fabric swatches, color inspiration and sketches, with her followers for feedback,'' Nordstrom said in a statement. "We're listening to what they're saying and are referencing their responses as we design the brand. ... Arielle has developed a strong following and we're hoping the synergy between both our brand and the Something Navy audience will introduce new customers to Nordstrom."
In addition to driving traffic toward a particular store or brand, influencers also create content, whether it's photos on Instagram, a video on YouTube or musings on a blog, that companies can reuse, Kline says.
"This content is quite valuable'' to a retailer or other company, he says. "You're getting these eyeballs, but also content which you can repurpose in other marketing materials.''
And it might be easier to assess the value of an influencer's impact than that of a celebrity ambassador who lends their face to a TV ad.
"One thing for sure is that influencers provide statistics and evidence of click-throughs, sales, likes and engagement rates,'' says Louise Roe, a TV host and lifestyle blogger who has worked with a mix of brands and retailers including Macy's and Jimmy Choo. "So a company can really track their investment. The impact of a star on a billboard is harder to measure with such accuracy."
Paid posts may be suspect to some shoppers, who increasingly want to see a real connection between influencers and the products they promote. Roe says that she discloses such arrangements and tries "to keep a balance between sponsored and nonsponsored content."
Last year, Target turned to a group of young teens and tweens to help it design its Gen Z focused clothing line, Art Class. The retailer also works with social media mavens to build connections with shoppers.
"Influencers are an important part of how we reach our guests, but our focus is on investing in relationships, not transactions,'' says Rick Gomez, Target's chief marketing officer. "That means working directly with influencers who understand and love our brand and who can connect authentically with our guests on Target's behalf. We also closely measure the work we do with influencers to ensure it's effective in helping achieve the goals we establish."