A warm spring evening brought dozens of New Yorkers to a Midtown Manhattan rooftop where they sipped fruity cocktails while chatting. After the happy hour, a woman went back to her job.
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. This is the lowest price you’ll ever find in a 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. American companies have been investing in the medium for years, aiming at the live shopping market that is expected to generate $647 billion in sales this year in China. The American consumer has not yet embraced live shopping the same way.
Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, launched Taobao Live in 2016, popularizing live shopping. In the United States, livestreaming is more fragmented, but retailers and large tech companies are betting on consumers continuing to search for and purchase items using their smartphones, even when they return to stores. Live shopping is a great way to increase engagement for platforms. Consumers can spend hours watching hosts sell products. 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. Walmart, YouTube, eBay and others added or improved their live-shopping features last year. Amazon used celebrities such as Kevin Hart to promote the Amazon Live platform during Prime Day. Shein, a U.S. retailer, was a pioneer when it launched Shein Live for U.S. consumers in 2016. 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 U.S. 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. PitchBook reports that investors poured over $380 million last year into livestream ecommerce companies in the United States, up from just $36 million by 2020.
“We believe shopping is not just about transaction. It’s about 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.
Ms. Wu stated that ShopShops began to focus on American consumers in 2021 instead of Chinese because they saw greater opportunities in the American retail sector. Because big players haven’t yet defined live shopping in the United States, ShopShops and other newcomers could “build the overall behavior,” she added.
Some viewers have replaced malls with live streaming. AJ Johnson, a lifestyle blogger in Scottsdale, Ariz., watches livestreams on ShopShops most days of the week, but her favorite show streams at 6 a.m. 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 e.l.f. 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 dozens 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, like 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 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 the 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 U.S. 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.”
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