By Wang Fengjuan
At 7 p.m. sharp on September 9, Fang Lu finished her dinner and opened Taobao Live app on her smartphone. She had been waiting for a live stream by Viya, a so-called Key Opinion Leader (KOL) who recommends and sells things on Taobao. Identifying herself as one of Viya’s Women, Fang Lu is quick to buy whatever Viya promotes. Viya began unloading her enthusiastic and passionate recommendation of products and corresponding discounts for the September 9 shopping festival. Viya’s recommendations covered almost every aspect of daily life from cosmetics, clothing and electronics to food and dietary supplements. Viya’s followers got the exclusive opportunity to buy the newest Huawei phones a day before the official launch and enter a lottery to purchase a Harvard H6 SUV for only 50,000 yuan (US$7,030).
Viya systematically broke down the advantages of the products and her own usage experience. She tasted cranberry raisins and baguettes and shared her experience before counting down the products’ sales. During the five-hour online shopping spree, Viya recommended 50 items, all of which sold in minutes. Sales of a Lancôme eye serum product Genifique Yeux Light-Pearl reached 4,000 by the end of the on-screen promotion.
Viya is the hands-down queen of Taobao live streaming, and she has created a sales phenomenon in terms of live web sales. In 2016, as one of the first group of hosts to be featured on the Taobao live streaming platform, Viya sold 6 million yuan (US$841,000) worth of goods via live streaming on November 11, a shopping holiday in China. In 2018, her gross sales rose to 2.7 billion yuan (US$379 million) including an astonishing record of bringing in 267 million yuan (US$37.5 million) in sales during a single five-hour event. During the June 18 mid-year online shopping gala in 2019, Viya generated over 500 million yuan (US$70 million) of Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) via Taobao live streaming, and her total promoted sales in the first half of the year exceeded 13 billion yuan (US$1.82 billion).
Considering such record numbers, it’s hard to fathom that three short years ago, Viya was just an ordinary seller on Taobao who was forced to sell her house to keep the business afloat. She rose from Taobao failure to become a superstar of Taobao KOL.
From Showbiz to Retail
Viya was formerly a singer and a host who performed and shot commercials with famous Chinese actors and singers including Jackie Chan and Wayne Lim Jun Jie. Eventually, Viya left the highly competitive entertainment industry to open a brick-and-mortar clothing store and model for it. Viya did not regret her exit from Vanity Fair. “Showbiz is not all about fame and glamour, and operating my own clothing business gave me a lot more freedom.”
Viya’s attraction to the clothing business was not random—her parents and some relatives were also selling clothes offline. Viya and her husband Dong Haifeng started selling from a booth in Beijing Zoo Clothing Wholesale Market in 2003. “We were doing quite well,” Dong recalled. “People were often lining up to buy the clothes Viya wore.” To expand their business, the couple opened their own tailor shops and began designing original garments. In 2008, they went to Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, and set up seven women’s apparel wholesale stores.
A turning point arrived in 2011, after the Taobao.com had existed for 12 years. Many young people considered Taobao a mature platform from which to launch a business, and a group of e-commercial clothing companies including Inman and HSTYLE thrived. Brick-and-mortar retailers started seeing a decline as more and more customers became comfortable buying clothes from online stores after trying them on in physical shops. Viya and her husband sensed the trend and decided to close all their stores and focus on selling clothes solely on Taobao.
“Doing business on Taobao left me time to do things I wanted to do.” As a fashion stylist and designer, Viya wanted to express her fashion ideas through building clothes.
However, things did not work out as Viya expected. The year 2015 was the fifth year for Viya’s online shop on Taobao. During that year’s “Double 11” (November 11) shopping carnival, the gross sales of Tmall.com, an online retail platform spun off from Taobao, reached 91.2 billion yuan (US$12.78 billion). The annual sales volume of Viya’s shop that year exceeded 10 million yuan (US$1.4 million) for the first time. But the record actually left Viya with losses of 3 million yuan (US$420,000) for the year 2015 in debt, over 6 million yuan (US$840,000) in total.
Disappointed and frustrated, Viya sold a house in Guangzhou to keep the business afloat. In the darkest times, she was frequently plagued by hesitation and doubt, wondering whether she should close shop for good. Fortunately, the couple gradually gained key experience in online retailing and sales gradually improved. Viya became determined to forge ahead.
Friend of Fans
In May 2016, Viya received a phone call from staff of the Taobao live streaming platform. They noticed that Viya’s shop was quite popular on the website and invited her to host a live-streamed product recommendation show.
“I couldn’t tell what the future held,” Viya recalled. “I guessed that the live streaming thing could become a trend, so I went for it.” Dong Haifeng was quite confident about the opportunity. “Customers liked Viya’s curation when we were operating physical stores, but with online stores all we could do was provide pictures of the clothes,” he explained. “Live streaming added a different dimension through which we could show more details of our products, realize immediate and direct communication with audiences, and most of all, present the personal appeal of Viya.”
Viya’s first live stream was scheduled for May 19, 2016. After application of perfect makeup, Viya sat in front of a camera and responded to commenters asking about cosmetics, hairstyles and fashion brands. Unexpectedly, the somewhat awkward small talk won many fans and became the launchpad for her career as a live streamer. “I was prepared for the show, but I still felt nervous when I began talking,” Viya revealed about her maiden show. “I was not familiar with live streaming, so I talked slowly and thought it seemed unnatural.”
Viya once ate a piece of cake during a live stream, which was unplanned, yet some of her fans asked for a link to buy it because “it looks so good.” After this incident, more and more of Viya’s fans began asking her for recommendations for products ranging from mobile phone shells, shoes, necklaces and lipsticks to cups or curtains. “The biggest difference between me and other live streamers is regardless of what kind of product my fans ask about, I can surely recommend something that meets their needs,” Viya chuckled. One of Viya’s fans wanted a recommendation on a feather duster for cleaning, and Viya pointed her to a multifunctional one that could also be used as a pole for hanging clothes. Now Viya speaks quite fast when live streaming. She describes the clothes she is wearing in terms of color, texture, designs and the feeling when putting them on. She also offers ideas about how to select clothes and find items most suited for an individual. Viya patiently reads and responds to comments and feedback such as questions regarding sizes or colors. Viya also talks directly to manufacturers to suggest they replenish after recommending their products so they don’t sell out. Viya does whatever she can to satisfy her fans—she even invited her father to model a men’s winter jacket upon request.
“Viya recommends almost everything, and I often discover things I like during her live streams,” Fang Lu noted. “She also has deals with retailers to give her followers steep discounts.” Like many of Viya’s fans, Fang feels comfortable and relaxed watching Viya’s live streaming, from which she gains better understanding of fashion and skincare as well as tips for daily life.
Viya’s Women, as Viya’s fans call themselves, are getting better at selecting clothes and applying makeup. Wang Yao is a fan of Viya who finds many of Viya’s recommendations practical. “I didn’t care much about my dress and appearance before, but I recently started following Viya’s advice making changes,” she admitted. “My family noticed it and said I became prettier. The changes made me more confident.” Viya recalled helping a single mother whose daughter was studying abroad. She told Viya that watching her live streams had become the highlight of her day and that trying her recommendations made her life fuller.
Viya’s Women care deeply about Viya and consider her a good friend. She once accidentally cut her finger during a live stream, leaving her fans more concerned than she was. When she mentioned that she once went to Nanjing and tried a local cake that tasted good, her fans sent her tons of it so she would remember it was Meihuagao cake, a Nanjing local specialty. Many friends send her herbal remedies to treat her voice because live streaming involves so much talking and Viya has experienced hoarseness in recent years. “I have received around five kinds of Ryukakusan sent by my fans,” Viya noted. “The more people trust you, the more you want to improve.”
On May 5, a woman appeared on the big screen of the NASDAQ building in Times Square in New York City. A beautiful and confident Chinese woman was seen recommending items in front of her. The video was broadcast for about an hour, which attracted numerous people to watch and wonder who she was.
It was Viya, dubbed Global Hot Products Promoter by her fans.
Viya’s adherence to principles underlie the title. Viya believes that to win fans’ trust, a live streamer must responsibly dispense recommendations. As a promoter, Viya first carefully examines and tries the items because “quality comes first” in her showroom. “My fans are my friends,” said Viya. The friendly relationship enables her to understand her fans so she can meet their demands and give better advice.
Over 5 million people tune in to watch the live stream of Viya recommending products and sharing knowledge of clothing, cosmetics, skincare and daily life tips. In 2017, she started seeing that specialized live platforms could greatly improve her professional exposure, so Viya signed up with Qianxun Live based in Hangzhou. With assistance and support from teams specializing in selecting products, Viya’s recommendations became more comprehensive and she began offering a portal through which the fans could find clothes, cosmetics, fresh food, accessories, bags and suitcases, watches and even agricultural products.
“If we are going to sponsor a facial mask, my selection team uses it every day for two weeks before I recommend it officially,” Viya revealed. She and her team are always critical about quality, which has won not only trust from her fans, but also recognition from platforms and producers.
With the support from the team, Viya is now set to go abroad and become an actual Global Hot Products Promoter. After organizing an activity titled “Viya’s Recommendation of Global Products” in South Korea, the live stream superstar chose Thailand as the second foreign stop of her promotion tour. “I love Thailand, and the country offers many great products to feature,” Viya explained. “The fact that so many of my fans also want to visit the country was another big factor in choosing Thailand.” During the May 14 live stream from Thailand, Viya introduced and recommended many of high-quality and practical Thai-centric products ranging from home accessories to food, including latex foam pillows filled with 93 percent latex that keep dust mites and bacteria away, Sivanna lipstick first launched in Thailand, and freeze dried durian products made from 95 percent mature durians.
To earn the support and trust of her fans, Viya has always been critical about selecting products. In Thailand, Viya and her team visited and inspected the GADUN bedding factories and witnessed production of its latex pillows and mattresses to make sure of product quality.
On April 11, Tmall Fresh officially signed Viya as a Global Hot Products Promoter. P&G and Philips followed suit. In June, Viya was invited by the Beijing Organizing Committee of the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to participate in an Olympic themed activity at the venue of the International Horticultural Exhibition 2019 Beijing.
Despite increasing competitiveness in commercial live streaming, Viya no longer worries. She takes on the competition with a casual and calm attitude, or as the Chinese like to say these days, “Buddha-like.” “To excel at this job, you need to be consistent, stay true to your original self and fans and tackle every related responsibility,” declared Viya. “Over 5 million fans create a powerful driving force that always encourages me to strive to be better.”
Now, Viya has evolved into a sort of a barometer for the industry of live streaming. Alongside furthering her e-commerce business, Viya has been undertaking charity work. On May 21, Viya announced on her Weibo account that she was cooperating with the China Youth Development Foundation and donating towards construction of a Hope Primary School in a poverty-stricken village in the Dabie Mountains on behalf of Viya’s Women. When this project was brought to the attention of over 13 million people, the flood of donations increased netizens’ enthusiasm and confidence in charitable undertakings. Viya hopes to do more for society through live streaming such as developing e-commerce poverty alleviation and supporting women-run start-ups.