She’s not your ordinary jewelry dealer. Going by the online moniker “Xiaotian,” she commands a big fan base, jokes with her customers, and models for her own business.
“Hi bao bao,” she greets her potential buyers during a livestream session one afternoon in Hong Kong, using a common, endearing nickname for online shoppers. “This is a new design that came out this week. You want me to try it on? Alright!”
Comments piled on. Some complimented the good looks of the designer who stood beside her. Others wanted to see the necklace up close. Still, others asked about the price.
That the Chinese are shopping on the internet in droves is not news. But a new trend is emerging among sellers on ecommerce platforms: they’re ditching old marketing playbooks and are turning to more personal interactions instead.
Taobao is at the forefront of that effort. Already, the Chinese equivalent of Amazon has legions of daigou agents: Chinese expats who buy foreign brands for their compatriots back home.
These days, instead of focusing on big-name brands, they are courting customers who want something different. Designer clothes. Local cuisines not yet known to the public. Handmade jewelry. Without strong brand recognition, these items are marketed with a bit of a personal touch by online sellers like Xiaotian. Many like her are using a wide range of marketing tools, including short videos and blog posts, to build their “fan bases.”
The most effective among these tools is, of course, livestreaming. It’s an intimate environment where buyers can see the products for themselves and pose questions in real time, leading to greater trust and loyalty among shoppers.
Indeed, having the products broadcast live has proven effective. Customers relish that they can binge shop without even venturing out to the store. And as they gain more fans, buyers usually stock up more goods.
“My annual sales figure can reach seven digits, so I wouldn’t worry about my livelihood,” Xiaotian told Huxiu, refusing to divulge her actual income.
A former surgeon from mainland China, she moved to Hong Kong with her husband and became a housewife. Since the end of 2016, she has been sourcing from Fang Weiping, a jewelry designer in Hong Kong who also sometimes appears in her livestreaming videos. When business is good, her livestream session – which takes place in Fang’s studio – could stretch eight hours, lasting from early afternoon to almost midnight.
Xiaotian in Fang’s studio
“Sometimes she would sell more during one livestream session than what I would sell in a week in my store,” Fang confessed. His brick-and-mortar business has suffered, forcing the designer to close three stores as he battled the dismal retail environment.
By migrating online, he hopes to salvage his jewelry enterprise. Fang is responsible for design and manufacturing. Then Xiaotian puts the products online, delivers them to customers, and manages after-sale services.
Chasing consumers hungry for foreign goods
Xiaotian’s success – one necklace can fetch up to US$22,600 when she’s selling – is a testament to China’s growing spending power.
That is not lost on small businesses beyond China’s borders. For example, Cheng Keyi, a Chinese national living in Thailand, is working with 35 designers in that country to bring their products to Chinese buyers.
Taobao has heeded the trend and vowed to step up its game.
In July, Wei Meng, head of Taobao’s Global Buy division, told reporters that the platform had 16,000 livestreaming agents overseas. The company, she added, was planning to increase that number to 50,000 this year. Global Buy is also planning to incubate at least “one foreign brand” a day.
A growth rate of 200 percent within a year seems a bit far-fetched. But it’s not impossible, given the huge numbers of stay-at-home mothers and overseas Chinese students.
To deter counterfeit products, Global Buy has rolled out measures like buyer background checks and location verification. The goal is to ensure that the goods are all sourced from overseas, as the buyers claim. With location verification, buyers need to check in from wherever they are abroad.
Logistics remains a big hurdle
For all the enthusiasm, one obstacle remains. Online sellers of foreign goods have struggled to get them to customers in a timely manner. For now, sellers can have the goods shipped directly from manufacturers. They can also use Cainiao, an expedited delivery system affiliated with Alibaba that’s becoming more popular.
Global Buy declined to confirm the percentage of sellers who use Cainiao. But a Cainiao executive told Chinese media that its future goal is to deliver goods to customers within 72 hours.
More challenges lie ahead, including customs clearance and creating a refund policy. An urgent task for Global Buy – which takes pride in selling products it calls “small but beautiful” – is to keep the momentum going and ensure that customers keep coming back.