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How live shopping platforms are shaping the future of e-commerce

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Walk down any street in New York City or Beverly Hills or through any mall in, and you’ll likely come across vacant storefront after vacant storefront. Brick-and-mortar retail, once shrouded in prestige, has been on the decline for the better part of a decade, as e-commerce has become the preferred method of shopping for people around the world. And with a seemingly limitless collection of items available online and increasingly speedy shipping, there’s now little need to ever visit a physical store again.

But even with all the convenience and access it boasts, there is one obvious absence in the online shopping experience: the curation and guidance offered during a traditional shopping trip. In recent years, however, this dearth in the e-commerce market has given rise to a new approach, live shopping.

Although it’s technically been around since the 1980s, with the advent of the HSN and QVC television channels, a handful of tech companies have made it their mission to bring live shopping to more contemporary platforms and younger consumers. With the help of cloud-backed software, these providers have created websites, apps, and programs, where users can watch their favorite seller, influencer, or host introduce a product and can then purchase it without leaving the livestream.

Live e-commerce has already taken several countries by storm, generating a predicted $387 billion this year in China alone, and its popularity in the United States is growing by the day. As live shopping platforms, like Bambuser and NTWK, come to the scene in droves and sizable companies—think LVMH, Samsung, and Nordstrom—forge their own paths in the space, many believe it will soon become the dominant approach to shopping on a global level.

For Aaron Levant, cofounder and CEO of NTWRK, the potential was clear long ago. “We launched in October 2018 with a simple idea,” he says. “We wanted to a mobile-first, millennial/Gen-Z version of QVC, and we wanted to focus on very niche, pop-culture fandom-driven communities.”

At the time, live shopping was a pretty fringe concept in the U.S., but Levant and his cofounders were confident that the expert curation found at select specialist stores and conventions would appeal to customers across the country, particularly those who would not otherwise have access to it.

So, NTWRK partnered with well-known creators and vendors to sell exclusive and in-demand merchandise on its app, from hard-to-find comic books and baseball cards to collectible sneakers and streetwear.

“We compete with a broad array of direct-to-consumer brands, other static marketplaces, and traditional retailers, but we put it all under one platform,” Levant says. “We offer an interactive experience, but we also put together five or six different genres in one cohesive, shoppable package, and I think that’s our big point of differentiation. With our app, you don’t have to go to five or six different websites to find the product mix and talent that we curate.”

NTWRK works by implementing cloud-backed technology that uses APIs to sync with sellers’ existing ecommerce backend database and allows them to broadcast live on the app. But these sellers aren’t just store-owners and hired hosts; more often than not, they’re celebrity creators or celebrated authorities behind an item or category.

“We’ve had Odell Backham, Jr. sell his exclusive pair of Nikes, Billie Eillish sell her collectible action figure, and DJ Khaled sell his Beats by Dre headphones,” Levant says. “And unlike YouTube or Instagram Live, where these creators have broadcast historically, we layer on the native commerce, so you can do a quick purchase directly on NTWRK without having to leave the livestream.”

The live shopping company has seen continued growth since its 2018 launch and has doubled in size each year, but while Levant believes NTWRK’s surge in popularity was always bound to happen, he knows the COVID-19 pandemic played a big role. “Business took off beyond our wildest dreams at that stage, and we weren’t expecting that,” he notes.

NTWRK now has thousands of sellers and more than three and a half million users on its platform, and Levant and his cofounders feel validated in the bet they made on live shopping years earlier—but they’re not the only ones.

After seeing growing consumer demand for an improved online shopping experience during the pandemic, Nordstrom launched a live shopping channel in early 2021. “How the customer shops, from discovery through delivery, has evolved to become increasingly digital, and the pandemic has only further accelerated these changes in behavior as customers are increasingly connected and mobile,” a spokesperson for the retailer says. “We launched this offering with the goal of meeting the ever-changing needs and expectations of our customers and empowering our team with tools to deliver on our commitment to serve our customer wherever, whenever and however they want to shop.”

Nordstrom’s live shopping platform features dozens of events each month, from highly produced livestreams with runway footage to discussions among industry experts about the latest trends. Each event is shoppable, and customers can interact with the host in real time, asking questions about sizing, color, styling, or any other item specifics. Nordstrom created its channel by partnering with a third-party tech provider, and it’s far from the only retailer to do so. With interest in live shopping on the rise, a growing number of software companies are creating and licensing the technology to retailers and brands.

Swedish company Bambuser was among the first to build software that enables live shopping directly on a retailer’s website, where purchases can remain within the native cart experience. The technology, which went to market in late 2019, saw a massive tailwind a few months later, as many retailers, with their brick-and-mortar locations closed, sought new ways to engage customers remotely. Over the last two years, Bambuser has partnered with brands across several industries, including Farfetch, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and multiple labels owned by LVMH, catering the live shopping technology to the needs of each.

Since the B2B company’s primary focus is on licensing its software to brands and retailers, who can use the platform however they see fit, Bambuser designed its technology to be incredibly versatile. “To go live, all they need is a mobile app, a team managing chat and product highlight from a dashboard, and the show that will be broadcasted in a customized player on the website,” explains Sophie Abrahamsson, Bambuser’s president for the Americas. “The live stream can also be simulcasted onto social media or partner websites, which is made possible by a proprietary mobile streaming technology and AWS infrastructure.”

While other live shopping providers tend to target a young demographic only, Bambuser believes that there are really no limitations to who could use the platform. “Retailers that have a young audience, who is digital and video savvy, of course have an advantage, and their audiences expect that interactivity,” Ambrahamsson says. “But on the other hand, retailers that experience long purchase funnels due to complex or expensive product ranges can strongly benefit from using live shopping too, since the clients get information and can ask questions, which ultimately significantly increases the purchase intent.”

One such retailer is Samsung, which partnered with Bambuser to introduce live e-commerce in May 2021 in an effort to provide an engaging, fun, and informative shopping experience while also highlighting its newest and most popular products. “This became a new channel to showcase the best of Samsung’s sustainability, connectivity, and customization features across an entire ecosystem of products,” says a Samsung spokesperson. “And this format gives the Samsung team an opportunity to answer questions directly from customers via a live chat and effectively show our consumers how Samsung’s connectivity features can help streamline their lives.”

It’s this kind of interaction that Bambuser believes is what’s behind much of the software’s success. As the current B2B market leader, the company has experienced 118% year-over-year growth and 286% year-over-year growth in end user adoptions, or viewership.

“We believe that live shopping will be an integral part of e-commerce within a few years,” Abrahamsson says. "The end consumer will shop online just the way they already interact online, and video commerce will continue bridging the gap between the physical and the online retail experiences. What we are seeing now is merely the beginning.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com