Inside a boot camp for Chinese TikTok sellers bringing live e-commerce to the US

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Jacqueline Zhuang debuted as a TikTok live shopping host from a studio in Guangzhou, promoting the sequined red dress she wore, in front of a rack of sparkly clothes. “If you wear it to your best friend’s wedding, I’m sure men will look at you and girls will envy you,” Zhuang said passionately in English. Encouraging voices cheered her on off camera. “For friends who choose it, I will have an extra surprise for you,” she added.

Just a week earlier, Zhuang, 30, had left her decade-long career as a journalist and TV presenter for what she believes is a career with a future – hosting live streams on TikTok to sell things to western buyers. To prepare for success, Zhuang joined a bootcamp, a two-day crash course in sales tactics and Internet slang in English to attract Western buyers. The course promoters promised to show Zhuang and the other participants – factory owners, teachers and a former flight attendant – everything they needed to know to sell Chinese products to English-speaking consumers on the most popular social media platform. popular in the world.

In just a few years, buying discounted products during a livestream has become one of the most popular ways to shop in China. On platforms like Taobao Live and TikTok’s sister app Douyin, livestream hosts sell everything from drain cleaner to lipstick, with the gossipy intimacy of the home shopping network, attracting millions of viewers. to their ephemeral discounts.

As live streaming soared to $400 billion industry in China, its success convinced Chinese entrepreneurs — and TikTok itself — that it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world starts shopping this way. Chinese vendors, live streamers and talent agents have become early proponents of live shopping on TikTok for Western audiences, hoping the honed sales tactics on Douyin and affordable products will help them make global consumers addicted to China’s favorite way to shop online.

“No offline store can sell millions of a single product through a single storefront in a single day,” said Bian Shiqi, who attended the bootcamp in Guangzhou. Rest of the world. After working in international commerce for a few years, the 35-year-old investor said she became convinced that TikTok could be the future of cross-border e-commerce while observing a prolific seller on Douyin.

Despite its global popularity, TikTok has yet to be transformed into a shopping destination. TikTok tested a function called TikTok Store – where shoppers can buy directly in the app – in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the UK, but in most other places shoppers need to take an extra step and go to the streamer’s website to buy something they saw on TikTok. Although shoppers aren’t tuning into TikTok’s live streams by the millions like they are on Douyin, live streamers and talent agents believe live shopping can become as popular as TikTok itself.

“In the United States, it’s going to work first,” said Cecilia Velazquez Traut, who works with influencers in Latin America. Rest of the world. ” Because people [there] consume a lot, they buy and buy – they just need someone to advise them on the purchase.

The bootcamp that Zhuang and Bian, along with six other students, had enrolled in was led by Yan Guanghua, a former English teacher from Chongqing. The eight participants were gathered in a conference room located in a building in a large industrial zone on the outskirts of Guangzhou. Yan, who says she earns up to $11,000 in a single livestreaming session (crystals are a hit with Western buyers) promises to share its secrets with attendees in a 20-hour workshop spread over two days. She charges students $970 for the class, walking them through the intricacies of cultivating a TikTok account that could sell millions of dollars in clothes, cosmetics, jewelry or other products to viewers from Los Angeles to London.


Yan Guanghua

Yan wanted to follow in the footsteps of major Chinese e-commerce influencers — “live stream queen“Viya and”lipstick king“Austin Li — but felt the saturated Douyin market was too competitive. To capitalize on her English-speaking skills, she tried TikTok instead, initially selling yoga clothes, headphone cases and lighters for an export company in Shenzhen. These days, she spends three to four hours a day live, selling handbags and beauty products to shoppers mostly in the United States. Rest of the world visited her training camp in September, she was planning an elaborate Halloween-themed backdrop to grab the attention of Western viewers as they browsed TikTok.

Analysts have predicted for years that Chinese-style e-commerce would take the West by storm, only for Pinduoduo and Alibaba’s efforts to fail. But Yan thinks she and other live-streaming hosts have a chance to stick with TikTok, thanks to their understanding of the sales tactics that got Chinese shoppers hooked on Douyin and generated hundreds of billions. dollars of direct sales in China. “The client needs to feel a sense of resonance,” Yan said. She said hosts must cultivate an “infectious personality” by “maintaining a fast pace of an item’s selling points.”

Yan developed his playbook by studying China’s star live broadcasters and learning how they created imaginative scenarios to attract consumers. “‘This coat is so warm, it’s like your boyfriend is hugging you’ – I’ve sold so many coats with this line,” Yan said. Rest of the world. “Some people said they don’t have a boyfriend, but I said it’s better not to have a boyfriend – just wear the coat and feel the feeling of having a boyfriend.”

According to Yan, it doesn’t matter how good a host’s English is or how good they look, what matters is their mastery of consumer psychology. “It’s not about emphasizing what’s good about the product, but about why you need it, in what scenarios you need it, and what kind of compliments you’ll get after it’s done. ‘have bought,” Yan said.

For Bian, what differentiates live e-commerce from shopping on a platform like Taobao or Amazon is that it is also entertainment. “Taobao is a ‘search e-commerce’, where you search for what you need to buy,” she said. “But Douyin is an ‘e-commerce of interest’, where while you have fun, you discover what you need.”

$3 billion The amount of goods sold on Douyin in the first half of 2022

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Despite his dedication, what Yan does from TikTok pales in comparison to what the Chinese hosts are earning on Douyin. With 600 million daily active users, assets worth more than $3 billion were reportedly sold on Douyin in the first half of 2022. On TikTok, with over a billion monthly active users, more than $1 billion of products were sold in the first half of 2022, according to a Chinese publication Late message. Much of the sales came from Indonesia, where in 2021 TikTok rolled out its first TikTok Shop pilot. The company is Planning to roll out live shopping in North America ahead of the holiday season, as part of a partnership with TalkShopLive. It also provides for introduce TikTok Shop in Brazil next year.

During the live sales boot camp, for the final session, each trainee had to write a script for the party dress they were asked to wear. At around 8:30 p.m., they took turns appearing in one of Yan’s live accounts, promoting the dresses to an imaginary audience.

Zhuang made a plea for the red sequined dress and gave a pair of earrings as a gift — giving gifts is a strategy Yan taught in her class. “Five, four, three, two, one,” she practiced counting in English, just as live broadcasters in China do to encourage millions of people to place their orders at once. In the future, Zhuang said, she plans to use the skills she learned to sell the agarwood incense produced by her family’s factory.

All of its participants are banking on TikTok for their success, Yan said, and these Chinese pioneers should hopefully make TikTok profitable enough for foreign companies to join in a few years. “If the platform is successful, we will be successful in the next two or three years,” she said. “If it doesn’t take off in two or three years, we won’t have anything.”

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