The Woman Who Can Sell Anything
Bloomberg Businessweek|June 08, 2020
Is Chinese live-streamer Viya, who sold about $425 million of goods in a day, retailing’s future?
By Jinshan Hong, Chunying Zhang, Allen Wan, and Janet Paskin

Forget Willy Loman or The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill. Huang Wei, China’s Livestream shopping queen, really can sell anything. In April, for instance, Huang, known professionally as Viya, sold a rocket launch for around 40 million yuan ($5.6 million). That’s nothing compared with her 2019 performance on Singles Day, China’s biggest shopping event of the year, when she logged more than 3 billion yuan in sales. That’s more than the annual gross domestic product of some nations, including Palau and São Tomé and Príncipe.

The live, online shopping extravaganza the 34-year-old hosts every night for her fans across China is part variety show, part infomercial, part group chat. Each evening, Viya’s audience places orders worth millions of dollars—typically for cosmetics, appliances, prepared foods, or clothing, but she’s also moved houses, cars, and that rocket launch. Last month her audience hit a record 37 million viewers—more than the Game of Thrones finale, the Oscars, or Sunday Night Football—after the spread of the coronavirus put most Chinese people under stay-at-home orders.

Viya’s playbook is one vision of retailing’s future. Livestream shopping is a natural confluence of several tech trends—streaming, influencers, social media, and e-commerce—and offers companies a new path to consumers’ hearts and wallets. Tesla Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., and supermodel-turned-beauty- entrepreneur Miranda Kerr are among the players that have turned to Viya for an introduction to the Chinese market. As the queen of the nation’s $60 billion ecosystems of live online shopping, she earned an estimated 30 million yuan in 2018, according to the most recent figures from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

Brick-and-mortar retailing’s dominance has for years been eroded by reduced foot traffic and sliding sales thanks to the internet. Now the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn have pushed physical store sales offa cliff. Offline, nongrocery retail is expected to drop 20% this year, according to Forrester Research Inc. And with no Covid-19 vaccine in sight, heading to a store to try on clothing or test a lipstick at a cosmetics counter could lose much of its pre-pandemic appeal.

That’s where Viya comes in, as the affable, trusted shopping go-between for her fans across China. “I position myself as someone who helps the customer make a decision—I need to think about their needs,” Viya says, following a late-night show last month. She wore casual black pants and a white T-shirt with a Yankees baseball cap and long silver earrings—all items that had been for sale during that evening’s show. She dresses casually on purpose, she says, to create intimacy with viewers who are most likely in sweatpants or something equally informal. “Specifically, my ambition is to offer everything my fans might need,” she says. “Doorbells, carpets, toothbrushes, furniture, mattresses, everything.”

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