Livestream shopping took China by storm. Now Amazon, TikTok and YouTube are betting the QVC-style pitches will take off in the U.S.
At her home in Miami, Myriam Sandler spends a few hours each week on a simple routine that's allowed her husband Mark to quit his job as an investment banker. The couple fills a laundry basket with the toys and gadgets that have improved life at home with their three young daughters. In their bedroom, Mark adjusts a ring light while Myriam sets everything within reach on a small desk in the corner.
Moments later, she taps her phone twice, looks into the camera, and goes live — not on the Home Shopping Network or QVC, but on Amazon.com.
"I'll introduce myself. I'm Myriam Sandler and I'm the face behind @mothercould," Sandler said into the camera on Feb. 5 before starting her pitches. "So the first product I'm going to talk about is actually one of my favorite cleaning products. It's a spin brush. It's already 84% claimed, so it's a lightning deal."
Sandler's @mothercould brand has 1.2 million followers on Instagram and 730,000 on TikTok, where her videos have racked up 11.7 billion views. Before going live on Amazon to sell her favorite products, she lets her followers on other platforms know.
"I don't profit off any other platform that you can go live on," Sandler said. "Everyone coming to Amazon Live is essentially coming to buy something. They're there for that."
Livestream shopping took China by storm over the past three years. Chinese retail giant Alibaba launched its livestream app Taobao Live in 2016. When the pandemic grounded shoppers in 2020, it took off. One example came during the first 30 minutes of China's annual Singles' Day shopping festival in 2020, where Taobao livestreams generated $7.5 billion in transactions — a 400% jump from the year before. That same year, the livestream shopping market in China was valued at $171 billion, and was expected to top $400 billion within a few years. In the U.S., TikTok, Amazon, Walmart, Shopify and YouTube are all getting in on the game.
"People are excited by what you're seeing from China, where you see really, really high conversion rates on some of these experiences, much higher than maybe a regular website would have. You're seeing potentially up to 40% in some cases. You might see much lower return rates because people know what they got." said Daniel Debow, vice president of product at Shopify, which launched live-shopping capabilities with YouTube in July.
There's a rapidly growing ecosystem of livestreaming apps in China, such as TikTok's sister app Douyin, and Pinduoduo, known for rock bottom prices. Livestreamers in China — known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) — have made massive fortunes and there are entire boot camps devoted to the career craze of becoming a livestream shopping host.
"KOLs there have millions and millions and millions of fans, so even if 10% show up, that's still a million. That's not the case in the U.S. and Europe," said Quynh Mai, CEO of online marketing agency Qulture.
Indeed, livestream shopping has been far slower to catch on in the U.S. than in China. Of Chinese consumers surveyed by Coresight Research, 74% said they had bought products through a shoppable livestream in 2022. In the U.S., 78% said they'd never even watched one.
"People want to buy products with meaning or products that they can't get anywhere else. And that's really what's the underpinning of live shopping in the U.S. That's very different than in China, which is all about just a mass population," Mai said.
At 35% of the market, Alibaba's Taobao Live remains the world's biggest live shopping player. But the last few years have seen a flurry of U.S. companies investing in live shopping ventures, too. First among them was Amazon, which introduced livestream shopping in 2016.
On Amazon Live, influencers pitch products live from the intimacy of their own homes. Audiences can react with emojis or stars. A chat window lets them ask questions that the host can answer live, and there's an embedded link for every product to streamline purchases.
Tiana Young Morris first went viral in 2020 for videos in which she tried on wigs and then reviewed them.
"I was like, 'Oh, there are a lot of people that are going to buy the product that I recommended. I need to see how can I make money off of this?' And Amazon just makes it so easy for you to sign up for the Influencer Program," Young Morris said.
After signing up for the Amazon Influencer Program, creators get their own storefronts where Amazon users can follow them, getting alerts when they go live. Before launching her content creator career, Morris said she was making about $110,000 as a private practice attorney.
"Now I make about six times that," Young Morris said. "I really, really enjoy doing this. I make so much doing this that I don't have to [work as a lawyer] anymore."
Amazon Live creators make the most on commission, which is usually under 10% of sales from click-throughs on the livestream, although the rare category can be as high as 20%. Amazon also offers some creators a flat fee for going live regularly, and top creators can make extra from brands that pay for dedicated, sponsored livestreams.
Now Young Morris sells fashion, beauty and skin care products on Amazon Live, and hosts exclusive sponsored livestreams with major brands like Dove. Amazon Live doesn't disclose follower counts, but her TikTok account boasts about 635,000 followers.
Amazon continued its live-shopping investments with the launch of Amazon Live in India in September.
TikTok, YouTube and Meta
Social platforms are also investing big in the trend. ByteDance-owned TikTok partnered with Walmart for an hourlong livestream in 2020 where TikTok users could buy Walmart fashion items featured by creators. The duo did another livestream in 2021 after reporting the first event netted seven times more views than expected and grew Walmart's TikTok following by 25%.
"I think TikTok is going to be able to leapfrog everyone else because they have so many users now," Mai said. "Every time you use the platform, it's learning your behavior, learning your interests and serving you what it thinks you like."
But shoppers on TikTok in the U.S. currently have to navigate away from the app to make a purchase, eliminating a big potential revenue stream. In the fall, TikTok started U.S. testing of a new function called TikTok Shop that allows users to buy directly in the app. It's invitation-only for creators and merchants in the U.S. right now, but it's already launched in Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom. TikTok currently faces bans in several states due to concerns it could hand user data over to China.
Meanwhile, YouTube's recently expanded live-shopping capabilities allow shoppers to buy without leaving the platform. Activewear brand founder Cassey Ho of @Blogilates and @PopFlex had her second-highest sales hour of the year promoting her products live on YouTube in November.
"Right now, across all my social platforms, we have about 15 million followers and subscribers everywhere and on YouTube, over 2 billion views. And then in terms of sales, PopFlex on its own is an eight-figure business and then Blogilates on its own is an eight-figure business," Ho said.
There are also a handful of startups developing new U.S. platforms devoted entirely to live shopping. There's Ntwrk that focuses on sneakers and collectibles and Supergreat and Trendio for beauty products. The biggest among them is TalkShopLive, where Walmart held 150 live-shopping events in 2022 and celebrities like Dolly Parton, Oprah Winfrey and Tim Tebow have gone live.
Meta, on the other hand, is scaling back its focus on shopping. It halted live shopping on Facebook in October and removed the Shop tab from Instagram's navigation bar earlier this month.
In China, the government is enforcing greater supervision over private industries, including livestream shopping. Some of its biggest live-shopping superstars have been hit with massive fines or taken sudden unannounced breaks.