Part Two: What We Can Learn from China’s COVID-19 Innovations in Retail Social Commerce

by | 20 July 2020

There is much the U.S. can learn from China about how to leverage social innovations to connect with consumers. The country is known for prioritizing its digital channels and assets to drive sales strategically. And its efforts have paid off, as they continue to lead the world in terms of e-commerce sales and penetration. Retailers that pay close attention to our contemporaries in the East, borrowing digital strategies and tactics to implement into their omnichannel plans, are likely to come out ahead in the future retail landscape.

Consumer Shopping Behaviors are Unpredictable

Consumer purchasing behaviors vacillate with unpredictability. According to a study conducted by Resonate, 18.7% of consumers believe that it will take more than a year to get back to a semblance of life pre-COVID-19. Nearly 65% of shoppers take a “wait-and-see” approach with shopping (and spending) in-store, and 45% insist that their online shopping habits are permanent. Online is where consumers will be for the foreseeable future; browsing, comparison shopping, and yes, making purchases.

Social + Commerce: The Place to Be

Social commerce allows users to interact with one another within a native social media experience where consumers can make product purchases from a third-party site. China has already seen significant lift from retail social commerce, with an anticipated growth of $242.41 billion (RMB1.675 trillion) this year. According to eMarketer, retail social commerce sales are expected to double (~$474.81 billion) by 2023. The U.S., on the other hand, has been slow to adopt social commerce. Consider that in 2019, social commerce sales in China ($186.04 billion) were nearly 10 times that of sales in the U.S. ($19.42 billion).

Creating a Native Social Media Experience

Native content brings relevance and entertainment to consumers that, when combined with advertising, generates an 82% increase in brand lift. One program with significant success among online retailers and brands in China is the Mini Program, an initiative launched by WeChat. The WeChat platform is multi-purposeful, with messaging, social media and mobile payment capabilities all available in-app. The Mini Program integrates advertisers into its social media environment to sell their products directly to WeChat users. The value of the Mini Program is that consumers need not switch between apps (as is custom in the U.S.) to complete purchases. That convenience has generated a loyal following for WeChat, with more than one billion active monthly users.

Tencent (parent company of WeChat) stated in its annual report that the total transaction value generated by its Mini Programs in 2019 was more than $115 billion. As an investor in U.S.-based Snapchat, Tencent’s success has influenced CEO Evan Spiegel to launch a similar product within Snapchat. Snap Minis will debut later this summer.

Leveraging Livestream Commerce

Livestream commerce creates a three-dimensional, interactive social shopping experience for Chinese consumers to discover brands from around the world. Livestreams occur within China’s leading e-commerce platforms (TikTok, WeChat, etc.) and allows fans to purchase items in real-time within the same app. TikTok is by far the most progressive app, with its in-video search capabilities where users search in-video for products or clothes to buy directly in-app. On Taobao, China’s shopping site, equivalent to Amazon, customers can shop for more than 600,000 products through live stream. In Q1 2020, the website reported a growth of 719% with new merchants using the platform.

Influencers leverage the medium to bring products to life when they might otherwise remain static on a webpage. Livestreaming provides viewers with information about featured products through an entertaining interface, notably with someone they trust and look to for fashion advice while also activating sales. More than four million live shopping sessions took place in China in the first quarter, prompting Alibaba to source video influencers from around the world to highlight products on its shopping site Aliexpress.

Amazon Live launched last year to compete with long-time shopping channels QVC and HSN. The program hosts demonstrate products for sale on Amazon, with an on-screen carousel where shoppers can browse product details and make purchases. Brands can host live streams using the Amazon Live Creator. Although Instagram Live and Facebook Live have surged in popularity, neither site has seamlessly integrated in-video shopping capabilities to date.

Starting with a Mobile-First Shopping Experience

In the first quarter of 2020, the adjusted U.S. retail ecommerce sales amounted to more than $160.33 billion (U.S. dollars). Retail ecommerce sales refer to those purchases made online or via mobile. And mobile is one of the core competency areas that U.S. retailers have committed to in the consumer journey. Luckily, the major social media platforms — Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook have kept pace with China’s technological advances.

Pinterest partnered with Shopify to launch a merchant app that allows retailers to upload products into Pinterest, creating a catalog of shoppable product pins. Users can discover, pin and purchase products directly from the merchant website. The app provides merchants with a powerful marketing tool to share their products with a new audience. A complement feature to the product pins is the ‘Shoppable Lens Visual Search’, where consumers can use their camera to search Pinterest for a particular item, prompting a “Shop” tab of shoppable pins that links directly to the checkout page on the retailer’s site.

Shoppable posts let users complete the buying process without leaving their social media network of choice. Instagram Shops’ immersive storefront drives product discovery within a native shopping experience. Target was among the first retailers to partner with Instagram to leverage the site’s shoppable experiences to capitalize on the passive scroll that has become common among users during the pandemic. Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, has launched a Facebook Shop program that targets small businesses to convert their Facebook and Instagram business pages into digital storefronts.