Struggling amid coronavirus pandemic, Chineses businesses turn to live commerce

The Neiliansheng Shoe Store is a Beijing institution. It's been in business for 167 years and has a place of prominence on Qianmen Street, the city's main tourist thoroughfare. Over the course of its storied history, it has served countless high profile customers, including Qing Dynasty court officials and Mao Zedong.

When Beijing authorities imposed quarantine measures in January because of the coronavirus outbreak, the store was forced to shutter. But the owners have found a new way to survive. These purveyors of traditional Chinese fashion have turned to modern streaming technology to keep business afloat.

Neiliansheng held its first live commerce event in late February. It was hosted by one of the store's veteran shoemakers. Over the course of the event, he spoke about what sets the company's products apart, explaining how the soles are made by spreading dozens of layers of cloth on top of each other, a delicate technique that requires the highest level craftsmanship.

Live commerce events resemble online trade fairs in which a company showcases its products, with a presenter answering commenter questions and requests. If the audience sees something they like, they can order it with a click. With the coronavirus limiting how long a shop can stay open, and how many customers it can welcome, companies in China are increasingly turning to streaming sessions.

Neiliansheng drew customers from younger age groups that don't typically shop at the store. 70% of buyers from the session were 35 or younger. Deputy general manager Cheng Xu says they would never have reached that audience if there was no coronavirus.

Neiliansheng Shoe Store
Beijing's Neiliansheng Shoe Store has been in business for over 150 years. Sales have suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Genuoyi, an apparel company based in the southern city of Guangzhou, has 14 outlets across China. In February, it set up a studio next to its factory to hold live commerce events. The company now streams six days a week and says sales from February to mid-April were actually 10% higher than a year ago.

The company tapped Xin Xiaoqing, a former store manager, to be the presenter. Throughout the course of the events, she arranges items of clothing into various styles and interacts with viewers. This responsiveness has helped her build a large fanbase and Genuoyi says Xin's force of personality is a big reason for the success of its streaming events. In one 17-hour session, she was able to drive nearly $170,000 worth of sales.

"It's fun," Xin says. "There are fans who are excited to see me every day. They give me the energy to keep going. It can get exhausting but I hang on."

Xin Xiaoqing
Xin Xiaoqing has attracted many customers for apparel-maker Genuoyi with her popular live commerce events.

"When the virus was spreading, I had to decide what to do with the company," says Genuoyi chairman Ying Meilong. "We have about 600 employees. I had to protect them, even if it meant less business. But the streaming events have helped turn things around."

Ying adds that the company is planning to build an even larger studio and train up to 20 presenters. He says he hopes to team up with other companies in the industry to hold large-scale events where they can all showcase their products.

In March, the Guangzhou government announced plans to turn the city into the live commerce capital of China. Over the next three years, the government will train 10,000 presenters to promote the city's various industries, including food service, travel, car manufacturing, and education. The government will also set up a think tank committed exclusively to live commerce policy.

Neiliansheng Shoe Store reopened in April but the number of customers remains low. Nonetheless, Cheng Xu, the store's deputy general manager, says live commerce has given the shop hope.

"It shows there are many ways to attract new customers," he says. "We'll continue to explore different approaches and get people to visit our store."

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