The Companies Trying to Make Live Shopping a Thing in the US

On a warm spring evening in New York, dozens of people gathered on a rooftop in Midtown Manhattan to sip fruity cocktails and chat. Shortly after the happy hour began, a woman stepped away from the crowd and went to work.

Standing between a backdrop of fake greenery and an iPhone attached to a ring light, she put on an auctioneer’s voice and implored her audience to buy a used sweater.

“Let’s get this to $67, you guys,” Iva Lazovic said, smiling and stepping toward the camera. “This is so cute. It’s Lululemon. You are never getting it lower than this at the store. Let’s be real. Posh has the steals and deals.”

Ms. Lazovic was one of several women at the event who hopped in front of the phone to sell their wares on Posh Shows, Poshmark’s new livestreaming platform, the first significant business strategy the company has unveiled since the South Korean juggernaut Naver acquired it last fall.

Poshmark is one of many companies racing to break into the United States’ nascent live shopping market, which is estimated to bring in $32 billion in sales this year, according to the retail consulting firm Coresight Research. Eyeing the live shopping market in China, which, by comparison, is projected to bring in $647 billion this year, American companies have for years poured money into the medium, where people buy and sell products in real time over video. But American consumers have yet to take to live shopping in the same way.

In 2016, the e-commerce giant Alibaba launched Taobao Live, popularizing live shopping in China. The livestream landscape is much more fragmented in the United States, but even as shoppers return to stores, retailers and large tech firms are betting that consumers will continue searching for, and purchasing, items on their phones. For platforms, live shopping promises more engagement, with consumers sometimes spending hours watching hosts sell items. For retailers, it’s another channel to sell their goods.

Alongside Poshmark, QVC’s parent company Qurate recently started Sune, a live shopping app targeting Gen Z. Last year, Walmart, YouTube and eBay added or expanded their live shopping features. For Prime Day, Amazon recruited celebrities like Kevin Hart to promote its Amazon Live platform. Shein was an early adopter when it began Shein Live in 2016 for US shoppers. It started with just a few hundred viewers per episode and now averages “hundreds of thousands of viewers per episode,” said George Chiao, Shein’s US president, in a statement.

“There’s just an insane level of excitement that we have seen,” said Manish Chandra, the chief executive of Poshmark, at the rooftop event. “In a very few short months, they’re proving that this form of live shopping works,” he added, referring to Posh Shows sellers like Ms. Lazovic.

As big tech and major retailers work to gain a foothold in live shopping, start-ups like Whatnot and Ntwrk are touting their tight-knit customer communities as a blueprint for live shopping in the United States. Investors poured more than $380 million into livestream e-commerce companies in the United States last year, up from $36 million in 2020, according to PitchBook.

“We believe shopping is not just about transactions. It’s about the experience,” said Liyia Wu, chief executive and founder of the live shopping start-up ShopShops. Live shopping can simulate “an offline shopping experience online,” she added.

ShopShops in 2021 began focusing on American consumers instead of Chinese ones because it saw more opportunities in the American retail market, Ms. Wu said. Because big players haven’t yet defined live shopping in the United States, ShopShops and other newcomers can “build the overall behavior,” she added.

For some viewers, live shopping has taken the place of malls and morning cable shows. AJ Johnson, a lifestyle blogger in Scottsdale, Ariz., watches livestreams on ShopShops most days of the week, but her favorite show streams at 6 am on Wednesdays.

The app is more than a place to shop for clothing and jewelry, she said. Ms. Johnson, 36, has found entertainment and community on ShopShops through talking to hosts and other shoppers about their lives.

“Some people play video games. I just watch livestream shopping,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s like an escape.”

But live shopping faces stiff competition in the United States, where linear TV, streaming channels and social media also vie for consumers’ attention and money. Last year, 78 percent of American adults said they had never participated in a live shopping event, according to a survey by Morning Consult.

Some American companies have already backed out of live shopping. Meta made a major push into e-commerce at the beginning of the pandemic but shut down Instagram’s live shopping feature this March, and Facebook’s in October.

Other companies are making much slower entrances into live shopping. Since November, TikTok has been testing its live shopping tool, TikTok Shop, in the United States. It is betting that users will stay on TikTok to watch merchants — both big brands like the beauty line elf and the California apparel company PacSun, as well as small business owners — share their products and then purchase the goods through the app.

But the rollout of TikTok Shop has dragged in the United States. The feature has been available in parts of Southeast Asia for more than a year, and Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese counterpart, has offered live shopping since 2018.

In the United States, TikTok is facing intense criticism from lawmakers and regulators. More than two dozen states have banned the app on government devices. And in April, Montana legislators approved a bill to block TikTok in the state, a first-of-its-kind prohibition.

TikTok declined to say when TikTok Shop would become widely available in the United States.

Companies have taken different approaches to working with hosts. On Poshmark, anyone with an account can sell items from their closets. Other platforms work directly with the merchants, as is the case with Amazon, which uses celebrities and influencers to sell a variety of products, such as printers and kitchenware.

For Paige DeSorbo, a podcaster and influencer on the Bravo reality series “Summer House,” hosting her own show on Amazon Live allows her followers to see a “totally different” side of her personality.

“People trust me on certain things, so they want my opinion on whether it’s fashion or beauty,” she said. “When I’m talking to them on live, I do feel like it’s more, we’re friends.”

Ms. DeSorbo, 30, has hosted her show weekly since the end of 2021, typically filming episodes with two camera operators, one set designer and at least one producer. She receives a flat hosting fee from Amazon and commissions when people buy products featured on her Amazon page, or during her streams.

During a recent livestream, Ms. DeSorbo recreated the outfits she had shared on social media. As she tried on “dupes”—fashion lingo for knockoff versions of expensive items—for her outfits, she answered viewers’ questions about what to wear to events like comedy shows and summer vacations.

“It’s like talking to the wizard behind the curtain,” one of her more than 500 viewers commented, as Ms. DeSorbo talked about a recent trip with other reality TV cast members.

Companies will need to teach hosts how to clinch sales and speak directly to shoppers, a worthwhile investment, especially for hosts, said Deborah Weinswig, founder of Coresight Research. In China, companies originally hired sellers to boost particular brands. Those sellers then went on to build their own audiences, drawing shoppers and eventually gaining enough agency to choose their own products and brands.

“The biggest misunderstanding was that celebrities were who were going to be driving this industry,” Ms. Weinswig said. “That’s why I think we in the US got derailed because you being a celebrity or you being a creator — you are not necessarily going to be a good host.”

Posh Shows isn’t focused on celebrity hosts. Instead, anyone with a Poshmark account can go live — including Alex Mahl, who works full time at an attorney’s office and streams live on Posh Shows for hours after work.

Ms. Mahl, 26, spends about 40 hours a week on her side hustle, including hours of prepping mostly Lululemon clothes to sell, and uploading photos of them to the Poshmark app, where viewers can see the items throughout the show. She had sold more than $50,000 worth of inventory by early May, and estimates that she will earn $200,000 in sales by the end of the year.

Ms. Mahl has considered making this her primary job but remains cautious. She received early access to Posh Shows and is keeping an eye on her viewer count as more users go live. On a recent Monday evening, Ms. Mahl competed with dozens of other sellers, including a mother with a baby strapped on her back selling New York & Company dresses for $8, and a man selling a Louis Vuitton wallet with a starting price of $475.

“Am I nervous that more people have access? Yes, I am,” Ms. Mahl said. “But I’m confident in myself and what I’ve built for it to continue to go up in a good direction.”