Lessons to Learn from the Almost Forgotten Forerunner to eCommerce Shopping

Dec. 7, 2023

By Phil Lempert, SupermarketGuru, Consumer Trend Tracker, Food Trends Editor, NBC’s Today, and Author

Best Buy entered the world of livestream shopping with three events in partnership with TalkShopLive in November with a twist: customers placed their orders during the broadcasts and were able to pick up their purchases in-store. The combination of shopper-tainment (with Best Buy hosts and experts that were animated and fun), the avoidance of shipping charges and then forcing customers to come inside Best Buy to pick up their purchases (think IMPULSE SALES with people who already bought) was a brilliant move. With TalkShopLive’s enormous success — the social-selling platform boasts shopping shows with Paris Hilton, Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, and even Ringo Starr, to name a few — this partnership brings high-quality showmanship and production vales targeted to Best Buy’s existing and potential customer base.

Before there was livestream shopping there was what I’ll call “TV shopping” with its beginnings in the niche corners of cable TV and which has now become a ubiquitous part of our viewing experience, extending its reach far beyond the forerunner traditional powerhouses like QVC and HSN. These platforms, which began as televised bazaars if you will, showcased a carousel of products from jewelry to kitchen gadgets, and have evolved to an era where even mainstream TV shows like “The View,” “EXTRA,” “Inside Edition” and scores of local television shows alongside newsletters including Gwyneth Paltrow’s “goop” and Katie Couric’s “Wake-Up Call” are all pitching products to sell to their engaged audiences — transforming viewers into shoppers.

The televised shopping phenomenon can trace its roots back to 1982 with the launch of the Home Shopping Network (HSN). It wasn’t just a channel; it was a revolution in retail, bringing the department store experience into living rooms. QVC (Quality Value Convenience) soon followed in 1986, turning shopping into a form of entertainment with super-producer Barry Diller then investing in the company and leading it into higher production values and customer experiences. The early days of QVC and HSN featured charismatic hosts, live demonstrations, and limited-time offers that created a sense of urgency and community among viewers. This formula turned out to be incredibly successful, fostering a loyal viewer base that tuned in religiously, not just to shop but to be entertained — exactly what Best Buy is doing.

The secret sauce for these channels was that they perfected the art of “selling without selling” — hosts who chatted amiably about the products, shared personal anecdotes, and created an atmosphere akin to shopping with a friend. The connection viewers felt was palpable; it was personal, interactive, and before the internet age, groundbreaking. A lesson that today’s retailers, except for Best Buy, seem to have ignored.

QVC and HSN combined the thrill of live TV with the excitement of a retail rush. As technology advanced, so too did the landscape of selling and consumer habits. The rise of e-commerce behemoths like Amazon and Walmart.com signaled a shift. Consumers could now purchase products with a click rather than a call, and the experience suffered. During her presentation at the 2022 CMA-SIMA Conference, Andrea Leigh, founder of the Allume Group and previously a 10-year Category Leader at Amazon, called for eCommerce to become more than just a scrolling series of images, description and prices, and to evolve to a more enticing and meaningful online experience.

What Best Buy and others are trying to do is emulate that long forgotten “department store” experience into our homes and computer screens. As consumers continue to look toward influencers’ and friends’ product recommendations on social media in particular, this latest iteration is tempting to combine the real person recommendation with the aforementioned concept of selling without selling. Social media is no longer just about connecting people; it’s about driving consumers directly to products with unprecedented efficiency, immediacy, and personalization. But the question and challenge is — are we accomplishing this?

The problem that many of these livestreams have been ignoring what has been successful — the authenticity factor! Most retailers (and brands) are rushing into the studios or standing with a ring light in front of their iPhones and are focused more on price and product attributes than creating an atmosphere of shopping with a friend. Amazon Prime, Facebook, and Instagram Shop’s’ video content are perfect examples of what not to do! As are the efforts of Pinterest and Snapchat, all of whom seem to be relying on their back-end algorithms to personalize their offerings to a viewer’s profile — they are forgetting the “front-end” of the human connection that is key to selling. My recommendation is to spend hours and hours on TikTok and watch how these influencers are building relationships to sell their goods before you start your videotaping. What sets TikTok apart is its capacity to turn any video into a potential shopping opportunity. The app’s “For You Page” is not just a stream of entertainment; it’s a curated selection of products, showcased in context, which can feel more genuine and less intrusive than traditional advertising. Watch and learn.

One big opportunity is in the food space; the reason is that most people shop for food weekly versus an occasional purchase as you would shop on a Best Buy, for example. Supermarkets and brands should be developing live stream shopping based on recipes, food preparation, entertaining, health and wellness. Many supermarkets, since the pandemic, have had their retail dietitians creating short videos to promote everything from healthy kids meals to shopping on a budget. Taking these to the next level where shoppers can actually put together their shopping lists and order online will create a fun, more personalized and engaging shopping experience that will also (as it did with QVC and HSN) create a strong relationship with the shopper and the supermarket banner.

There is little doubt that in our future, interactive shopping features will become standard in all streaming platforms, allowing viewers to become shoppers and purchase a product immediately as it appears on screen with the simple click of a button. The convergence of social media and commerce is not just changing how we shop; it’s redefining the very fabric of retail.