Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began to take its dramatic toll on retail, the industry was in the midst of a seismic shift from brick-and-mortar to ecommerce—with outlets and brands racing to develop the tools and techniques they’ll need to thrive in the digital marketplace.
Now, even as we’re seeing bankruptcies of large chains, a dizzying acceleration in mall closures, and the floundering of major brands, we know that people will continue to shop—and not just for necessities. The demand—or at least, aspiration—for all goods will remain high, and will be constrained only by disposable income and access. Retailers and brand managers can do little to augment consumer incomes, but they can and must make their products easy to purchase and accessible across multiple channels. COVID-19 can thus be seen as an impetus to necessary change.
To thrive, businesses must harness the new technologies and marketing techniques that will allow the easy and safe navigation of the post-pandemic landscape. Digital tools that were once auxiliary in marketing efforts have become indispensable drivers of trade. Foremost among these is video etailing.
First employed in China in 2014 by the fashion platform Mogujie and Alibaba’s Taobao, video etailing gained traction as a triple-threat marketing technique, functioning simultaneously as entertainment, product information resource, and sales driver. Hosts modeled outfits and accessories online and communicated with consumers through live-chat windows in real time. Consumers could evaluate products from the convenience of their homes—or from their cars, or in restaurants, or urban parks—any place that had a wireless connection.
This immediacy and intimacy appealed immensely to consumers. Retailers embraced it as well, particularly in Asia. Last year, video etailing accounted for almost US$3 billion in trade for Alibaba Taobao on Singles Day, a popular shopping holiday in China. In February of this year alone, Taobao posted a seven-fold gain in first-time retailers video-etailing on the platform.
That success has hardly gone unnoticed elsewhere; over the last two years, video etailing figured significantly in the strategies of many Western retailers and brands. That trend has accelerated with the strictures necessitated by COVID-19.
“Video-etailing is gaining in North America and Europe for the same reasons it took off in Asia,” says Roman Martynenko, cofounder and executive vice president of global services at Astound Commerce. “It allows retailers to bring their products directly to consumers in the shortest possible time frames, and it gives consumers a direct connection to brands and the people representing the brands.”
Because of COVID-19, video etailing today is no longer just an adjunct to larger marketing strategies: in many cases, it constitutes the central strategy, the only way to reach shoppers still reluctant to return to the physical store.
“Interactive video was a growing part of our social and civic lives prior to the pandemic,” says Martynenko. “This spring it became a literal lifeline, often the only means available for both connecting with loved ones and purchasing goods.”
Astound Commerce recognized the importance of video etailing long before the current pandemic; engineers at Astound Labs, the company’s internal incubator, have worked for two years to perfect VTail, a proprietary shopping solutions platform created specifically for video etailing.
“The problem with many other platforms is that video etailing is a secondary function,” says Martynenko. “It’s typically a jury-rigged add-on to a game-sharing or media-sharing platform. VTail is designed from the bottom up strictly as a video-etailing platform.”
Dmitry Golovatsky, managing director of Astound Labs, observes that VTail is customizable and can be easily integrated into a wide array of shopping systems. Moreover, he observes, it obviates the pitfalls of platforms that have subsumed video etailing into their primary functions.
“For example, WeChat is a major platform for video etailing in China, but its widespread adoption in the western world would be problematic at best,” Golovatsky says.
Further, nothing on the market can match VTail’s broad suite of features, Golovatsky observes. That includes seamless integration with websites and apps; group text chat; live-voice interaction with friends, including invitation options; easy engagement with consultants; simplified scrolling to the order button; scheduled and private tours; and quick connection to similar or related products in catalogue.
“Our next phase will be embedding AI to further enhance any and all commerce ecosystems,” Golovatsky says. “We’ve been working on VTail for a long time, and it turns out it’s the right tool to sustain retail commerce in this difficult period. But more than that, it points to the future. The pandemic will pass, but from this point on, ecommerce is retail commerce. And video shopping has become foundational to all ecommerce systems.”