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Livestreaming is all the rage in China, ringing up sales

Hangzhou, China

ZHANG DAYI tugs at the sleeve of her grey sweater and rubs the material as 2.3 million viewers watch her every move.

"This sweater is lined on the inside with fleece, so it's very warm, is that correct?" she says, later pausing to look at the questions streaming in from viewers on her phone. "I can show you the back if you like; remember to add it to your basket!"

Ms Zhang, a popular influencer in China, is the face of a new way of shopping in the country, sweeping retailers in a boom dubbed "live commerce" - the convergence of e-commerce and livestreaming.

Telegenic and chatty personalities like Ms Zhang speak to shoppers in real time, answering questions about size, colour and even smell, and using limited-time discounts to encourage quick orders. Sessions go on for hours, and are especially long during big shopping extravaganzas such as Nov 11's Singles Day, and "Double 12" on Dec 12.

While e-commerce growth has slowed in a stuttering economy, the world's second-biggest, the livestreaming model has given retailers a shot in the arm. Alibaba Group said over 50 per cent of its Tmall merchants used livestreaming to sell nearly 20 billion yuan (S$3.8 billion) of products on Singles Day last month.

Retail sales in China rose 7.2 per cent year on year in October, matching the more-than-16-year-low hit in April. The government does not give a breakdown for e-commerce sales.

JD.com and Pinduoduo also have livestreaming offerings while video sites such as ByteDance's Douyin and Kuaishou give users the option to shop. Consultancy Deloitte estimated that 456 million people in China watched livestreams in 2018.

Brands are taking notice. During Singles Day, L'Oreal alone hosted over 600 hours of livestreaming between Oct 21 and Nov 11, Alibaba said.

"It was especially hard in the first half of 2018, we had to visit each company one by one," said Yang Zhao, head of Alibaba's Taobao Live Operations, recalling how hard it was back then to convince brands that Chinese consumers were keen to shop this way.

"Then it really exploded this year... They've started writing livestreaming into their annual strategy plans, how much they want to invest, make from it, and what content they want to create."

Ms Zhang is among the country's most popular online celebrities, with 11.6 million followers on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform.

The 32-year-old ventured into e-commerce in 2014 with her own shop on Taobao, and started experimenting with live-streaming two years later. Her firm is backed by Nasdaq-listed influencer incubator Ruhnn, in which she also has a stake.

"There were some things that were difficult to achieve with photos and short videos - for example, in short videos I cannot issue deal coupons, and I cannot communicate with my fans in real time," she told Reuters in an interview. REUTERS