The Digital Shift: Livestream Retailing

Brands selling through platforms such as Facebook Live are on the rise, but must each session be such a by-the-way and pasar affair?

Uniqlo on Facebook Live on 11.11, with hosts Fauzi Aziz (left), Felicia Poh (right), and model (centre). Screen grab Uniqlo/Facebook

As shoppers are spending more time online and staying away from physical stores, more brands are bringing the store to the shoppers via social media. Digital consumerism is truly becoming the heart of civic life. Livestream retail, while not a new way of selling, is fast gaining traction on our island. This primarily involves a host or more—brand owner(s), staff, or their friends—introducing or recommending products in a live video through platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, presently the two most popular. The shows are often productions with budgets so low, they’re probably zero, shot in a corner of an office or a store, even a warehouse with what, in many cases, appears to be a smartphone. As they are streamed live, editing is virtually absent and what you see is what you get. And, what you often do see and get are not exactly examples of polished videography or even compelling selling, nor funny jokes. In the age of TikTok videos, we are constantly told, no one cares about finish or finesse.

These endeavours are not the moving of mountains, but perhaps they should be, given live commerce’s increasing importance as a sales channel. Most of the selling via livestreams that we have viewed in the interest of this post are not even an uphill hike; they are no better than the majority of the crappy posts seen on TikTok, which is now so influential in its visual aesthetics that even television commercials are mimicking them. One TVC producer told us, “these days, anyone with a smartphone can be the host and the director. Who bothers with script and pre-pro?” Which explains why many retail livestreams appear to be conducted extempore, with hosts often asking each other what to do or show next, or struggling to describe what they are wearing or have in their hands. Is this really the appeal: as if you have just met the sales persons in Zoom, and they are—lucky you—willing to do a lame song and dance just to sell you a dress.

One of the latest brands to join the preferred platform, Facebook Live, to sell their wares is Uniqlo. Two nights ago, they streamed a 24-minute session to “celebrate” 11.11, but it bore little celebratory oopmh. The show was video-recorded on a selling floor of their Global Flagship Store at Orchard Central, but looked like it could have been at any of their smaller suburban outlets. The host, Felicia Poh, “who handles public relations” appears, but it was after a palpable one-and-half minute wait before we could be acquainted with her yoo-hoo exuberance. She was then joined by Fauzi Aziz, marketing lead of The Smart Local, who gushed about how much he loves the brand. Both were so bubbly, they practically frothed. But nothing they announced was especially new or appealing, despite the promise of sharing “a lot of exciting stuff”, not even the news that the +J collection, already trending, will launch next week. What worked in their favour was that they did not have to go off-screen to change into what they wanted to sell. Rather, they had the best-looking members of the Uniqlo staff to model the looks, which, admittedly, were well styled, even when a binder clip could be seen clasped to the ribbed hem of a sweatshirt one of them wore, to tighten it over his waist. This model was put in an uncomfortable position when he was subject of ill-considered humour. Mr Aziz had said about the outfit: “I saw him from afar and I was like saying, ‘I could work this.’” Before he was able to complete what he wanted to say, his co-host outed him with “like your new crush“!

The indefatigable three of Mdada: (from letf) Pornsak Prajakwit, Addy Lee, and Michele Chia. Screen grab: Mdada/Facebook

Not all brands have the advantage of attractive-looking staffers to strut during a livestream or to excite the hosts. So for most, the girl/boy-next-door presenters, usually a pair, slip in and out of outfits between inane banter, and not always with the finesse of professional models or hosts who know what to do before a camera. But these livestreams are not television broadcasts. Anything goes, and it usually does. Typically, the videos appear and nothing really happens until minutes later. It is not clear why they can’t start at the scheduled time. As with most livestreams, the hosts would move about, pretending they are not videoed yet. And when the show does begin, peppy is often the way to start. The best example of this is Mdada (达达开播), the e-commerce company of former TV comperes Michele Chia and Pornsak Prajakwit, and hairstylist Addy Lee that generated S$15 million in “unaudited revenue”, according to The Straits Times. Mdada’s success is largely based on grassroots vibes and the rawness of hold-the-smartphone-in-front productions, from which viewers are pulled into their loud and goofy, but artless charm.

Started in September last year, Mdada illustrates that selling online the way they do is best conducted as if a bunch of friends got together for some boisterous fun. Gentility and grace are not part of the company. Typically, the hosts kick off with mindless banter so that you would get used to their raucous presence. A necessity as each livestream can go on for hours, up to a staggering twelve, according to the trio. This is sustained via what Mr Lee, also the CEO of Mdada and the godfather of Quan Yifeng’s daughter Eleanor Lee, described to the media as “engaging hosts” (he is one of them—about seven, including Shane Pow), delivering “engaging product demos, exclusive deals, and limited-time auction”. To engage, they seem to, crucially, grate: each of them need only be themselves, Bengness and Lianness to the hilt, with a body of words—Mandarin (primarily), English, and Hokkien—in a din that could be used to lelong anything from massages to Moschino. And the livestreams must also contain, what Mr Prajakwit told CNBC, “info-taintment”. It is not known if their audience—close to 35,000 followers on FB—are truly informed or entertained, or both, while the peddlers often perform in the presence of a sloppy pile.

Nor are we told of the demographics of their shoppers. It could be companionable to watch the Mdada hosts go about their business of silly-talk selling, but it is amazing that one does not feel the effects of the tight space in which the sales are conducted and, especially, when the hairdresser’s face frequently fills the screen. Who, we wonder, are inspired or aroused to shop when they see, for example, Mr Lee and his co-host hold up crumpled Prada paper bags in a dim hotel room, as seen on a recent teaser of their livestream from Italy? It is also not known if the selling that takes place on the opposite side of sophistication (merchandise in a mess before them, for example) is endorsed by the brands they so enthusiastically hawk. Mdada (or MLux, as the platform for selling luxury goods is called) certainly provides an experience contrary to what a shopper is likely to meet in an actual designer boutique (their livestreams from Italy appeared to be conducted in stores of an outlet mall). The days of experiential purchases are over? A former fashion buyer told us, “It is possible that most of the shoppers on Mdada are intimidated by the thought of walking into a luxury store. Buying on livestreams is less daunting and less likely to cause anxiety.”

Two is the company: Fayth Live. Screen grab: Fayth/Facebook

It is understandable that there are those who would not have the confidence to enter a Prada store, but would anyone be too anxious to walk into, say, Fayth, the SG brand with an unmistakable blogshop aesthetic? Founded by Ryan Ng and Janis Gan in 2012, Fayth’s physical shops are happy friendships between pastel shades and accessible prettiness. Still, their livestreams on FB can be a draw. In their last, posted in July, hosts Sarah and Yvonne attracted 284 viewers to their 42-minute show. Nothing really happened and the selling did not attempt to whip things up. As they bantered and giggled, and giggled, someone unseen (presumably the videographer) would ask them questions that viewers had presumably posted. The bespectacled duo tried their best to answer, as well as to offer personal opinions. They would move nearer the camera to show the details on their outfits (a particular favourite is the “concealed zip”—“can’t really see, that’s why it’s called concealed zip”) or bring a dress on a hanger closer to fill the screen so that those watching them would know “there’s also elastic band inside” or what shade ivory is: “so it’s a bit like creamy colour”.

As the one-take production did not benefit from the input of a sound engineer, their giggly voices tended to echo through the relatively empty and surprisingly neat space. Sarah had the habit of dragging her feet, so the cluck-cluck of her short block-heels would interject her selling, even when she went off-screen or as she came back on. This continued even when she was in a pair of slides and, later, sneakers (since Fayth does not sell footwear, it is possible the hosts wore their own. The effort looked like an afterthought). Everything they tried was perfect: not too long, not too short; and all the dresses kept to one silhouette: tented. The girls changed and showed off the clothes with palpable delight, sometimes shaking their bodies, as if to prove that what they wore were truly hanging loosely. And if that was not enough, they encouraged each other to twirl. In fact, any dress that was not form-fitting was described with one word—“flowy”.

In most of the livestreams we have watched, the lack of fashion literacy is startling. You’d think that individuals hosting shows to sell clothes would know at least the basic terms relating to what they would be putting out for sale, but that is frequently not the case. For Uniqlo, Felicia Poh described a notch (similar to a fishtail parka’s) at the hem of the centre-back of the dress she wore as a “flap”, while Fauzi Aziz, who told the viewers he was “decked out” in +J, went rather blank over a grossgrain tape that covered the rear seam of the yoke of a sweatshirt, referring to it as a “thick woven fabric on the back detail”. To Mdada’s Addy Lee, who hawks with the resonance of a Hungry Ghost Festival auctioneer, every pair of footwear was a xie (鞋) or shoe, whether sneakers or Wallabees, and every bag a baobao (包包) until it became enough to kaishi baobao (开始包包) or “start bags” when the selling commenced. Sarah from Fayth was more informative, so much so that she pointed to you that a dress was made of “polyester material”, in case you’d think polyester is a vegetable or that the dress came with “inner lining” so that you’ll not mistake it for outer lining. And to help you further, a skirt over built-in shorts was called a “skort”, even when it’s not shorts pretending to be a skirt. And just as delightful, the invisible bearer of viewers’ questions asked earnestly, “what is the material of this fabric?”

In Good Company Live offers the company of five hosts (three seen here). Screen grabs: In Good Company/Facebook

The need to use relatable rojak language is understandable. As one marketing head said to us with a hint of regret in his voice, “we are not exactly sophisticated consumers.” It’s not just our irrational love of “actually”, “never” or “got”, used indiscriminately, but the disregard of words conveying information crucial to the appreciation of what we consume, in this case, fashion. That these hosts would inaccurately describe the clothes and the details that set the pieces apart from the competitor’s (there are, after all, so many tiered sundresses out there) or employ strange expressions with conviction is really rather curious communication. Their ebullience concealed nothing. When more retailers—even mass labels such as Uniqlo—are providing the right terminology on hang tags and sign holders on racks, it is regrettable that there are brands, even the really respected ones, that are not bothered by hosts of their livestreams using peculiar or made-up words.

What took us by surprise was In Good Company’s sales session, livestreamed from their Jewel store just four days ago. In a forty-one-minute broadcast, triteness was really the main show. Hosted by four women and a guy, Suwen, Maggi, Azrin, Jean, and Ning, it was as much a mutual admiration club as it was a selling opportunity. Less than three minutes into the livestream, Suwen described a cowl neck as a “boat neck… that’s not your normal (as it turned out, her favourite expression) boat neck neckline”. It was not difficult to see where they were taking the viewers. “It has very interesting sleeves,” she progressed to talk about a top with multiple diagonal panels, but did not explain why they were interesting, only that they were “slightly different”. Her hosting partner Ning would not be outdone. Of a pullover, he informed the viewers that “it’s made up of three different fabric pieces… stitched together”, possibly out of fear that potential shoppers might think that the panels were glued together. The two loved to suggest that tops could be worn “both tucked out or tucked in”. It would be more helpful if either of them showed the audience how he or she would “tuck out”. We like to believe that both meant untucked! But, “tuck out” was a clear favourite.

It is understandable if they struggled to talk fashion, but they strived to talk clothes too. They were not able to provide sufficient occasions or places the separates could be worn to, so they kept repeating how the ensembles could be “worn on a plane”, happily oblivious that travelling is still somewhat limited, even when Vaccinated Travel Lanes have been introduced between our island and some nations. But what truly made the broadcast for us was when Suwen called a romper a “shorter-length jumpsuit” and Ning specified seersucker as “corrugated cotton” (puckered cotton, yes, but corrugated?), possibly thinking of zinc roofs! To be certain, we do not expect these part-time hosts to be fluent in the language of fashion or textiles. Even a professional such as DJ Rosalyn Lee struggled while she presented on IG, the live preview of the autumn/winter 2020 collection of Comme des Garçons. Still, it was really surprising and disappointing that In Good Company’s marketing department did not provide the hosts with the knowledge necessary to make their presentation credible. And, in turn, more watchable.

Bejewelled Or Blemished?

Nike’s latest collaboration with crystal maker Swarovski is an Air Force 1 with strange surface protrusions

By Shu Xie

Among Nike’s many reimagined sneakers, the Air Force 1 seems, to me, to be receiving the most collaborative makeovers. And here is another AF1 iteration: with the Austrian producer of crystal glass Swarovski. This collab, the third (if I remember correctly) between the two brands, is not quite what I would expect from a purveyor of bling. Unlike the Dunk from last year, which was completely covered with crystals, or the Air Max 97 from this past March, which was not entirely smothered (and this time with crystals so tiny, they could have been dust), sneak-peeks of the AFI show that it comes with something entirely different. As I see it, the shoes have a second skin. And it is an outer that really obscures the recognisable silhouette of the Nike classic. Looking like something that could have been 3-D printed, this membrane immediately makes me forget that the AF1 is the first among Nike’s sneakers from the ’80s to incorporate the brand’s Air cushioning technology.

But that is not really what I find most intriguing. It is what’s on the overlay. The amoeba-shaped piece with fancy cut-outs is dotted with silver ball-studs that look pressed into tiny bulbs on the surface of this second skin. These are not Valentino’s Rockstuds or those spikes on Christian Louboutin kicks. Frankly, they look like pimples to me. Like blackheads! Still there is something oddly appealing about this AF1. I think I am drawn to the fact that the extra layer can be taken apart. Yes, by removing the screws on the mid-sole that hold the additional skin down. They are flat-top screws and each pair of the sneakers come with a screwdriver, should you need to do some handyman’s work. These days, the Nike basketball shoes for women do not only come with trinkets to feminise the kicks (the Blazer Mid LX, for example), they are now dressed with a flashy, removable cloak. Shoelaces, even fancy ones, are really not enough.

Update (20 November 2021, 18:00): The Nike X Swarovski Air Force 1 will be available on Nike.com on 2 December, from 10am

No official release date of this collab is announced. Watch this space for more information. Product photo: Nike. Photo illustration: Just So