In the middle of China’s busiest shopping season, content is king for merchants on some of the retail industry’s biggest online platforms. Joyce Xiang, who works in the finance sector in Beijing, was previously reluctant to buy from live-streamers. Her attitude changed when she recently started following China’s top live-streaming influencers, Li Jiaqi and Viya Huang. “[The products] are relatively cheaper in Viya’s live-streaming shows, but I often cannot get them because the inventory moves fast,” the 32-year-old Xiang said. She has already made over 50 orders for skincare products from Viya’s channel, as well as clothes and other daily necessities on Taobao Marketplace during the site’s Singles’ Day presale period late last month. What you need to know about China’s Singles’ Day online shopping festival Xiang is among the millions of consumers in China now caught up in the “I see, I like, I buy” lifestyle encouraged by merchants through their online content. That is being driven by the ability of merchants, both big and small, to push a rich blend of online content – called “shoppertainment” – designed to attract and engage more users during China’s annual Singles’ Day, held on November 11, as well as all year round. While campaigns are anchored on the specific products offered, marketing is enhanced with a mix of promotions, user-generated social media content, live-streaming sessions, gaming features and recommendations from influencers, among a growing array of content being incorporated by online merchants to ensure user stickiness. The trend shows how China’s e-commerce market, the world’s biggest, is evolving and becoming increasingly sophisticated amid stiff competition between the likes of online retail platform operators Alibaba Group Holding , JD.com and Pinduoduo . Taobao is part of the core commerce business of Alibaba, parent company of the South China Morning Post . “It‘s an amazing next chapter in broadening the role of e-commerce,” said Jordan Berke, founder and chief executive of Tomorrow Retail Consulting. “Live-streaming in China has really brought the best of physical shopping into the digital experience.” China’s e-commerce market is forecast to reach US$2.1 trillion this year, up 16% from 2019, according to data from US-based research firm eMarketer. Meanwhile, the total number of live-streaming video users in China is projected to reach 526 million this year, up from 504 million last year, according to iiMedia Research. Live-streaming e-commerce is the fastest-growing area of China’s internet Rivals Alibaba and JD.com have been ahead in their industry in developing content and building up the user base for their respective live-streaming e-commerce operations, which were separately founded about four years ago. Taobao Live, the live-streaming platform for merchants on Taobao, posted about US$7.5 billion total transactions in the first 30 minutes of Alibaba’s presales campaign for Singles’ Day last month. Taobao Live achieved a gross merchandise volume (GMV) of more than 350 billion yuan (US$52.9 billion) for the 12 months ended September 30, according to the Alibaba’s latest quarterly financial report. “Taobao Live used to be just an option for many merchants, but now it’s a must,” said Yu Feng, the head of Taobao Live. Yu said more merchants and brands will operate their own live-streaming channels via Taobao Live as part of Alibaba’s Singles’ Day campaign this year, in addition to the sessions by influencers and celebrities. During the 618 midyear shopping festival in June , live-streaming sessions hosted by merchants accounted for 70 per cent of the total sessions hosted by Taobao Live, according to Yu. JD Live, which was launched in 2016, now covers a broad range categories including personal computers, smartphones, home appliances, watches and jewellery, fresh food, and make-up and skincare. “Content is the battlefield where everyone is fighting right now,” said Jonathan Cheng, head of Bain & Co’s Greater China Retail practice. “Whether that is video, live-streaming, or much better editorial … focusing on the content has become a key differentiator for the various platforms.” The expanded reach of influencers in China’s retail industry has already paved the way for short video-sharing social media platforms like Tencent Holdings-backed Kuaishou and ByteDance-owned Douyin , to diversify into e-commerce. Douyin, which had about 400 million daily active users as of January, is building a closed-loop e-commerce operation that bans other online shopping platforms from accessing its live-streaming channels. Merchants must also use Douyin’s own digital marketing matching service to find key opinion leaders, while barring cross-promotion of their products on third-party e-commerce websites through its live streaming service. Kuaishou, which has applied to list its shares in Hong Kong , launched its e-commerce business in August 2018. This segment accounts for less than 5 per cent of its total revenue, but is growing fast. With more than 300 million daily active users, Kuaishou posted a total GMV of 109.6 billion yuan in the first half of this year, up from 3.4 billion yuan in the same period last year. Kuaishou has set ambitious targets for e-commerce, including incubating 100,000 businesses and help each of them achieve 1 million yuan in annual sales next year. Live-streaming may be booming in China in a post-pandemic world but only a few make it to the big leagues Xiao Liang, the founder of six apparel stores for women on Taobao, said he tried live-streaming campaigns on the platform in 2016, but quit in early 2018 because of tough competition with other small and medium-sized merchants. But the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic prompted Xiao to try live-streaming again, supporting his company’s more than 200 employees needed. Xiao said campaigns for his company’s skincare products are now run on Kuaishou after he saw the potential of the platform during last year’s Spring Festival Gala. “Our No 1 priority this year is to boost the popularity of our account,” Xiao said. The account called Cheng Qiqi is under the name of his company’s live-streamer on Kuaishou. With more than 500,000 fans, live-streaming now contributes 15 per cent of Cheng Qiqi’s sales. Xiao said the goal is to double or triple the number of people watching their live streams after the Singles‘ Day promotions. Live-streaming is also expected to account for 70 per cent to 80 per cent of his company’s total sales on Kuaishou in the future. E-commerce, live-streaming help drive recovery in China’s retail scene amid coronavirus slump “What we’re now seeing is the fragmentation of the channels,” said Bain & Co’s Cheng. “Everyone is trying to create their own closed ecosystem. From a brand perspective, it‘s going to be more challenging for them to navigate through that complexity.” To be sure, the popularity of live-streaming e-commerce on short video-sharing platforms has come with problems, including a surge of complaints about false advertising, counterfeit or low-quality goods, and lack of post-sales service. That has resulted in scrutiny from regulatory authorities. On July 1, the China Advertising Association – the body overseeing the domestic advertising industry – issued a code of conduct that requires live-streamers to adhere to laws and ensure that information conveyed about endorsed products is truthful. Live-streamers must also register with their real names. Similar to conventional luxury and beauty brand ambassadors, live-streamers endorse third-party products and services for a fee. China’s State Administration of Market Regulation also published a new draft rule in October, proposing to hold live-streaming platforms with online shopping services – such as Douyin and Kuaishou – accountable under the same regulatory oversight as e-commerce platforms. “The short video platforms are about two years behind companies like Alibaba,” said Tomorrow Retail Consulting’s Berke. He indicated that “commerce-focused content” remains the expertise of the major online retail platforms.