Livestream Selling is Here
Entrepreneur|Startups Fall - Winter 2021
Amazon, Facebook, Google, and TikTok are getting involved, VCs are investing, and brands are interested in a new retail spin that takes online shopping live. But an upstart company in Alabama is already living what may be the future of retail—and helping 6,000 small retailers see their business soar.
By Liz Brody

Mic Hensley won’t put on a dress. His fans would die for him to wear one when he lives streams to more than a million phones and Facebook pages while making sales for Pink Coconut, which sounds like a club but is actually a women’s clothing boutique he owns with his wife, Sheri, in Olive Branch, Miss. “I’ll put on a cardigan or a bunch of purses,” Hensley says, laughing. “But I try not to even do that very often because they just get pumped and want more.”

Though that’s not all they want more of. Livestream selling not only saved the Hensleys’ business from becoming a casualty of the pandemic; it increased sales 20 to 30 percent every month, sending the Hensleys into a hiring frenzy that has now reached 48 employees and counting. “Once we started doing it,” says Mic, “everything just kind of shot to the moon.”

Widely referred to as QVC on steroids, Livestream selling in the U.S. usually features a salesperson or an influencer, often in their living room (cords, tchotchkes, and pets in full view), demonstrating products and shooting the breeze with online shoppers in real-time video. Viewers can say hi or ask questions in comments that float across the screen, and the livestreamer responds to them personally. Meanwhile, everyone watches a bubble that displays the product’s dwindling availability until it sells out.

It’s already a craze in China, where live stream shopping sales will hit $300 billion this year, according to Coresight Research. (There, the video productions are more sophisticated and staged.) But the U.S. market has been pretty groggy, estimated to be only $6 billion in 2020. That may be about to change. Coresight, for one, predicts the market will more than quadruple by 2023 as the pandemic helps accelerate preexisting cultural shifts— especially since Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Shopify, and TikTok have all ambled into the space in the past couple of years.

But none of these platforms is the one that catapulted Pink Coconut. The Hensleys and more than 6,000 other small businesses, mostly in fast fashion, partner with a little-known company called CommentSold, founded four years ago by a serial entrepreneur in Huntsville, Ala. Never in his wildest dreams—or, really, nightmares—did that guy, Brandon Kruse, think he’d be in the women’s clothing business. But here he is, a pioneer out in front of the tech giants, trying to operate “under the radar,” as he puts it, while generating a billion dollars in sales a year.

LIVESTREAM selling might just be the future of online shopping. “And not in five years,” predicts Suketu Gandhi, a partner at the global consulting firm Kearney. “It’s a two-year journey, thanks to a virus called COVID.” During the pandemic, we’ve all gotten even more used to spending hours on video— bingeing on Netflix, sweating on Peloton, or following influencers on TikTok. It’s not a big leap to shop that way, Gandhi argues. Plus, on the business side, the connection between digital advertising and actual sales has been slowly weakening. Add to that “the death of the cookie”—with browsers like Safari, Firefox, and Google pulling their support of the hidden bits of code that let advertisers follow our online activity and target us, plus Apple letting iPhone users disable personal data tracking— and brands may be scrambling for new ways to reach customers.

Not everyone believes Livestream selling will be the solution. “We are trying to shoehorn the type of commerce that works in China into the U.S. market now, but it’s not like users are asking for it,” says Juozas Kaziuénas, CEO of Marketplace Pulse, an e-commerce research firm. “I think to most people, it feels like a very blatant sale.” It might work on a niche level, he says, but for anything at scale? “It’s an uphill battle.”

Still, it could be a rather lucrative climb. When a retailer hosts a Livestream shopping event on its website, it can have conversion rates of 10 to 25 percent on average and even reach 40 percent, according to Ken Fenyo, president of research and advisory at Coresight, who says the conversion rates for digital ads are generally significantly lower. “People want to engage directly with the brand,” he says. “And for that entrepreneur or store associate, it’s a chance to come alive about their passion for what they’re selling in an interactive way.” That can add up to a lot, even for companies with little communities. “What’s amazing about our livestreaming clients,” says CommentSold’s Kruse, “is how small the audience is compared with how much revenue they do.”

HAD IT NOT been for a repo man and an overbooked flight, Kruse would have a very different life at age 31. The repo man showed up when he was 12 to take the family car after his dad lost his job. Seeing that, for Kruse, was like being dropkicked out of childhood. “I wanted to control my own destiny,” he remembers. He started his first business in high school. By the time he turned 21, he’d already sold DialMaxx, a telecom company, to MagicJack for $2.6 million-plus a generous earn-out, and went on to launch startups that did data storage for genomic sequencing labs, built call alert systems for the State of Alabama and various other things he could never explain at a party.

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