Foreigners join China's army of live-stream sales, predicted to change habits of global consumers

Lalo Lopez at a studio in Shanghai where he usually live-streams to offer products on an Aliexpress channel in Spain on Oct 22, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Late at night, Mr Lalo Lopez heads to a small Shanghai studio for a live stream, punting Chinese products from cycling shorts to vacuum cleaners to Spanish speakers around the world.

The 33-year-old Spaniard, who describes himself as an artist, DJ and YouTuber, is in the vanguard of the growing ranks of foreigners hired by mainland agencies to extend China's live-stream sales mania beyond its borders.

By some estimates, live-stream shopping is a near US$70 billion (S$94 billion) industry inside China, attracting influencers who scour markets and malls for items to peddle to live audiences via social media.

Once an obscure form of shopping, live streaming is predicted to change the habits of global consumers, whose footfall has already headed from the high street to online marketplaces.

Buoyed by the success of live streams at home, Chinese companies crave bridgeheads for their goods overseas.

Enter hosts such as Mr Lopez, who has lived in China for around nine years and was approached by Beijing-based marketing firm Linkone Interactive after it saw videos he posted on YouTube and Instagram.

"When I speak, I look at the product through my culture, through my experience," said Mr Lopez, whose streams can attract up to 15,000 viewers.

The medium allows him to answer viewers' questions on everything from clothing and household appliances to gadgets in real-time, while entertaining them with trivia and flamboyant sales patter.

In one live stream, Mr Lopez appears wearing a pink bathrobe over his regular clothing as he demonstrates using a handheld vacuum cleaner, at one point testing it on his hair.

"It's easier (for me) because of the cultural background we share," said Mr Lopez, who earns up to 1,500 yuan (S$306) per session, referring to his foreign customers.

The pioneering live streamers are a diverse mix of traders, with Polish speakers selling eye massagers and Italian speakers flogging lighting for selfies.

Chinese agencies are now training foreign hosts in China and recruiting influencers abroad, in hopes of hooking onto a winning pattern.

Mr Zhang Zhiguo, chief executive of Linkone Interactive, said his firm has been training non-Chinese live-streaming hosts for nearly two years, as brands look to expand abroad.

It has around 50 influencers now - more than half of whom are based in China - targeting markets such as the United States, France and Spain.

Live streaming has become a natural extension of online shopping.

Even Chinese state media has touted it as a means to alleviate poverty in rural areas where farmers can sell produce like tea online.

This year, individual channels on e-commerce platform Taobao clocked sales of more than 100 million yuan during one shopping festival in June.

Expectations are now running high for the biggest discount period of the year - "Singles' Day" on Nov 11 - a bellwether of consumer sentiment in the world's second-largest economy.

The industry has grown rapidly after germinating in 2016, when online giants Taobao and both launched live-streaming platforms.

This year, it could gross more than one trillion yuan, according to a report by KPMG and AliResearch, an arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba.

That would more than double the 2019 numbers estimated by Shanghai-based firm iResearch of US$68 billion.

"Last year, there might only have been several hundred (viewers)," Mr Zhang told Agence France-Presse.

But now "it's normal to get several thousand views".

Mr Keane Wang, planning director at Shenyang-based Neusoft Cloud Technology, said it is setting up a live-streaming base in France, aiming to recruit 300 to 500 foreign hosts over the next three years.

"Companies in China see the success of live streaming on (short video platform) Douyin and Taobao, so they are willing to try it and put resources into it," said Mr Wang.

The success in China may also have inspired others to enter the live-stream scramble for customers.

US giant Amazon launched Amazon Live early last year.

In South-east Asia, Singapore e-commerce platform Shopee made a similar move as it took on Alibaba's Lazada in the same region.

Within China, part of the push for retailers to take live streaming abroad comes from its e-commerce behemoths such as Alibaba.

Its international retail arm AliExpress launched a platform in May to attract over 100,000 content creators, including live streamers, this year to market abroad.

They are eyeing a one million-strong pool of influencers within three years, to be paired with brands and merchants looking to hawk their goods across the world.

The live stream is still "weird" in countries such as France, but it has gained ground in other markets such as Russia, says Ms Alice Roche, a Shanghai-based media planner who hosts shows in French and English, selling goods from massage machines to cosmetics.

"Live streaming is a new way of consuming... in several years, it will be the main way we choose products," she said.

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