When the world closed up shop in 2020, ecommerce shifted into a new gear. But how consumers shop online is set to change.

In the shock of the pandemic’s early days, simply getting goods out of the door was a challenge in its own right. But with more consumers set to shop online, and brick-and-mortar footfall down in many locations, a new competitive frontier will arrive in retail in the form of livestreams.

Isaac Hopkins, Trends Analyst, GlobalWebIndex (GWI)

That’s entertainment

Ecommerce boomed as stay-at-home orders were issued, and the increased activity will stick. 49% of consumers expect to shop online more frequently, even after the pandemic. But given the context of a virus, aspects of the experience could become stale. Product delivery has to be socially distanced, there is little interaction with staff or fellow shoppers and, most of all, fewer ways to distinguish a brand.

Online purchases are still largely driven by the “seamless” qualities of free delivery (60%) and an easy checkout (43%). But 29% want the experience to be entertaining. Interestingly, given where so much attention was focused during 2020, this is the same as the number who say support of social causes would nudge them into buying a product online.

There are many ways to use content and entertainment in this vein. One of the standout themes of this year’s Single’s Day in China, for example, was minigames.

We believe livestreams will be a promising frontier in 2021 even outside of China, as they touch on other contextual factors around COVID-19 and its aftermath.

They’re engaging, easily accessible, as well as entertaining. What’s more, TikTok’s sudden rise to prominence in the West (bringing with it social commerce expertise from its native market) has sparked off a kind of livestreaming race between it, Facebook, Amazon, and a host of other apps.

The value of browsing

When consumers watch livestream commerce they’re not there to necessarily make a purchase. Much like when visiting retailers in-store, they have the freedom to simply browse. This creates an environment where retailers of all sizes can recreate their own unique storefronts online.

The livestream model in China is based around influencers (known in the country as “key opinion leaders”), and it’s understandable retailers might flinch from putting their reputation in someone else’s hands. But our research shows just how much consumers trust and value influencers’ opinion, and how ready they are to buy through them.

Communities can form around influencers when many consumers are shopping in isolation. They can also provide a human face to brands at a time when consumers are looking for empathy to help support them through the pandemic.

29% of internet users across 7 countries frequently watch livestreams from influencers they follow on social media. And among those who do that, 80% say they’re likely to buy products as a result. This is an important point in seeing the trend as something more than QVC and teleshopping moved to a new medium. This form of online shopping stands apart because of the interaction it fosters between viewer and streamer.

Small businesses, forced to innovate with fewer resources to manage store closures, have been at the vanguard, showing off their personalities and catalogs via livestreams. Larger retailers looking to get on board should think about how their setup can reflect their values and identity as well. While using influencers as sellers or brand storytellers requires relaxing control, it may well be worth the risk to avoid getting lost in a sea of competitors.

It’s been stated that 2020 jumped ecommerce forward by “about 5 years”. 2021 may be the year infrastructure catches up to deal with the extra demand. Consumers thrive on experiences, and the pandemic has forced retailers to ensure this is possible online. It’s not just about entertainment, consumers tune into livestreams because they’ll learn more about the brand or product than simple descriptions, photos, or even videos. Livestreams are a way to stay relevant and discoverable in a retail world increasingly online-first.