The future of social media looks a lot like QVC

Cindy the Dog is a fashion superstar at Petco’s livestream shopping event.
Cindy the Dog is a fashion superstar at Petco’s livestream shopping event.
Image: Petco
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Cindy, a seven-month-old dog, strutted down the runway in a green and blue floatation vest that goes for $29.99 at Petco. Anyone watching Cindy’s tail wag live on Petco’s Facebook page, part of an event this past April, could shop for the vest and other items in real-time as adoptable dogs modeled them on the livestream.

The event, hosted by American TV presenter and social media influencer Arielle Vandenberg, was Petco’s first foray into livestream shopping, an emerging e-commerce function for social networks. It was a cross between the Westminster Dog Show and a QVC sell-a-thon—a fun, not-too-serious way for a major brand to entertain, build awareness, sell products, and get some dogs adopted.

Livestream shopping is still embryonic in the US, but its popularity in China, along with other e-commerce trends ushered in by the pandemic, suggest it could become more prevalent in the years ahead, connecting brands and influencers to paying audiences over social networks eager to keep users logged in and spending.

Livestream shopping is already a part of life in China

Insider Intelligence forecasts that China will generate $132 billion in livestream sales on social media in 2021, which will be about 37% of all social commerce (e-commerce transacted on social media platforms) in the country. By 2023, it will generate an estimated $281 billion, or 60% of social commerce in China.

Livestream shopping isn’t just focused on apparel or beauty products in China, as it mostly is in the US. Brands and influencers sell just about everything there, including food and beverages. “We’re looking at a very different type of consumer behavior at this point,” said Blake Droesch, an analyst at Insider Intelligence. “In China, an influencer can have a limited-edition line of clothing and it can sell out very quickly, but people are also going on to these livestreams to more types of everyday products, which is totally not happening in the United States right now.”

In the US, shopping on social media is far behind, and livestream shopping is even further behind. Social commerce in China will generate $352 billion in retail sales this year, according to Insider Intelligence, about 10 times more than the $36 billion the US is set to generate.

An emerging space

But experiments like Petco’s doggy fashion show are increasingly popping up online and targeting American consumers.

Livestream shopping is a “slow-moving trend accelerated by the pandemic,” Droesch said. “With influencers and brands losing in-person touch-points during the pandemic, a lot of them shifted to livestreaming.”

And social media platforms, long dependent on advertising dollars, are increasingly eager to get their users to spend money on their platforms, too.

Facebook recently introduced Live Shopping Fridays, a running series where brands like Petco and fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch have sold products on minimally produced livestreams. On Facebook-owned Instagram, any business or creator using the platform’s Live Rooms feature can produce live shopping experiences, too.

Pinterest tested livestream shopping in May with a three-day interactive event featuring the likes of Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness and fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff.

On TikTok, live shopping has been a long time coming. Douyin, a TikTok sister app in China (both are owned by ByteDance), has a robust e-commerce operation that brought in a reported 500 billion yuan ($77 billion) in 2020, much of which came from brands and influencers hosting shoppable livestreams.

TikTok worked with Walmart on multiple live-shopping events in the past year but has not rolled out the functionality widely. There could be more in stores, though. Bloomberg recently combed through TikTok’s job openings and found that 100 openings have “e-commerce” in the title and 90 have “live” in the title. “Reading through the descriptions, it’s clear TikTok plans to invest aggressively to cultivate live-streaming creators in numerous categories—including fashion and beauty, lifestyle and technology—and empower them to sell merchandise directly on the platform,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Tae Kim.

Amazon Live

Amazon, the largest e-commerce website in the US, has a live-streaming feature called Amazon Live, which the company deploys for special events like Prime Day. Other sellers on the site can use it for product demonstrations and sales.

Amazon isn’t known for its discoverability, but Amazon Live is an attempt to change that. The question is whether shoppers will recognize and respond to the brand spokespeople on Amazon Live, the way they do influencers on social media platforms like Instagram.

On social media, influencers can command a level of trust from their followers that other brands seek when deploying them as spokespeople. On a livestream, creators can drop new items in a fashion or beauty line, for example, banking on elements of scarcity and FOMO (fear of missing out), said Alessandro Bogliari, CEO of The Influencer Marketing Factory, an influencer marketing agency.

It’s where the pets go

The Petco event on Facebook reached nearly 1 million people on Facebook and delivered a 12% boost in traffic to Petco’s website, the company said. Though it did not indicate how many direct sales it made through the shoppable livestream, Petco said it sold twice what it spent on the event.

After a “resoundingly positive” experience the first time around, the pet-supplies chain hosted another live shopping event on Facebook on July 28, with former Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and dog trainer Darris Cooper.

With so much commerce moving online during the pandemic, Petco agrees that social media is key to people’s discovery of brands, trends, and products. “When consumers are searching for clothes, supplies, and other goods for their pets, the first step in the journey to purchase will often happen on social media, which gives brands like Petco the perfect opportunity to reach customers early on with live shopping events on social,” said Jay Altschuler, vice president of media transformation at Petco.

It is in many ways the revival of the mall concept, if not the mall itself. Now, says Insider Intelligence’s Droesch, “[s]ocial media is the mall—where people are going to discover products and different types of trends.”