Foreigners join China's live-stream sales army

Mr Lalo Lopez at a studio in Shanghai where he usually live-streams to offer products on an AliExpress channel in his home country Spain. Chinese agencies are training foreign hosts in China and recruiting influencers abroad, in hopes of hooking onto
Mr Lalo Lopez at a studio in Shanghai where he usually live-streams to offer products on an AliExpress channel in his home country Spain. Chinese agencies are training foreign hosts in China and recruiting influencers abroad, in hopes of hooking onto a winning selling pattern.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • 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 calls himself 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$93.6 billion) industry in China, attracting influencers who scour markets and malls for items to peddle to live audiences online.

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 firms crave bridgeheads for their goods overseas. Enter hosts such as Mr Lopez, who has lived in China for about 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.

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

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

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

Mr Zhang Zhiguo, chief executive officer 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 about 50 influencers targeting markets such as the US, France and Spain.

The industry has taken off since 2016, when online giants Taobao and JD.com both launched live-streaming platforms.

This year, it could gross more than 1 trillion yuan (S$204 billion), 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.

  • $93.6b

  • Estimated value of the live-stream shopping industry inside China.

"Last year, there might only have been several hundred (viewers)," Mr Zhang said. But now, "it's normal to get several thousand views".

The success in China may have inspired others to enter the live-stream scramble for customers. US giant Amazon launched Amazon Live early last year. 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 global retail arm AliExpress launched a platform in May to draw 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 like France, but it has gained ground in other markets like Russia, said Ms Alice Roche, a Shanghai-based media planner who hosts shows in French and English, selling goods from massage machines to cosmetics.

"In several years, (live-streaming) will be the main way we choose products," she added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2020, with the headline 'Foreigners join China's live-stream sales army'. Print Edition | Subscribe