China’s online shopping stars enjoy huge influence, but can fall foul of the authorities and vanish from the retail multiverse.
Hua Shao (華少) stands knee-deep in water at the edge of the sea, behind a table piled high with large crabs. The famous TV host is sweaty, sunburnt and laughing with a cohost, a red-and-blue fishing boat bobbing behind them.
“The sea-ears taste so good, it must have been collected from a sea area where the water is very clear,” he tells more than 100,000 people watching online.
It is the eve of “618,” one of China’s biggest retail festivals, which are increasingly driven by the weird world of livestream shopping channels.
Amid major economic concerns in China and arduous “zero COVID-19” policies, 618 is expected to give a strong indication of how people’s urge to shop has been affected. Discounts and deals are ubiquitous, promoted by legions of actual and aspiring retail celebrities.
Hua is a big gun.
The livestreams, which are spread across China’s Internet and social media, occupy a space in between Instagram influencers and the late-night TV shopping channels of the 1980s and 90s.
On platforms such as Taobao and Douyin — China’s version of TikTok — billions of dollars are spent on the interactive pages of livestream shopping anchors.
Many of these fast-talking and charismatic hosts have now become A-list celebrities. Some channels are slickly produced, surrounded by products and brands, guests, frenetic bells, whistles and countdowns creating a sense of urgency among viewers to splash the cash.
The most successful hosts have tens of millions of loyal viewers and sell hundreds of millions of items.
Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) is arguably China’s most famous, known among his tens of millions of followers for his enthusiastic catchphrase: “Oh my God, buy it.”
He earned the nickname the “Lipstick King” after he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.”
In 2020, Li claimed he could do 389 broadcasts in 365 days, often working from midday to 4am.
Livestreaming accounts for 10 percent of Chinese e-commerce revenue, McKinsey data show.
It now underpins retail campaigns such as Singles’ Day and Double 11 — annual shopping festivals that eclipse Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales in the US.
In 2020, the industry had an estimated merchandise value of US$171 billion.
This year, McKinsey predicts it would surpass US$420 billion.
More than one-third of the products are fashion-related, followed by beauty products, fresh food and tech. Occasionally, there is an eyebrow-raising outlier — in 2020, one of the country’s most popular sellers hawked a US$5.6 million commercial rocket-launch service.
Analysts estimate that almost 500 million people last year made purchases on a shopping livestream, up 20 percent from 2020, probably boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic keeping so many people at home.
A shopping fan surnamed Du from Henan Province said that Douyin livestreams were good for her and her daughter.
“For plus-size women’s clothing, the models are indeed large-sized, and it is more down-to-earth than other platforms,” she said.
Trust in the hosts is key. Often they use their clout to negotiate cheap deals for their viewers. The biggest names in live shopping are seen as having reliable opinions on the products they sell, despite the big-money contracts between them and brands such as L’Oreal, Adidas, McDonald’s and KFC.
However, the explosive growth of the industry has drawn the attention of regulators.
In December last year, one of the industry’s biggest stars, Huang Wei (黃薇), who goes by the name Viya, was fined more than US$210 million for tax evasion.
After the fine was announced, Huang apologized on her social media account, telling followers that she felt “deeply guilty” and accepted the punishment.
Some fans said their discussion of Huang’s case was blocked on social media. Some spoke out in defense of her and the product lines she endorsed.
“I was also very, very, very angry at Viya for evading taxes, but her selection is more in line with my taste, especially home appliances and furniture and daily necessities,” one Sina Weibo user said.
The most recent scandal is a little more complicated.
On June 3 — the eve of the Tiananmen Square Massacre — Li appeared to present an ice-cream cake that resembled a tank. It was not clear that Li was aware of the possible significance of the cake, but his feed was abruptly cut and social media mentions of his name censored. Li has not been back online since.
What that means for the brands he promoted to his tens of millions of followers is not clear. Some companies are now choosing to sell via artificial intelligence-generated hosts instead.
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