On a Thursday morning just after the long July 4th weekend, ShopShops founder Liyia Wu has been at the Opening Ceremony flagship in SoHo for the past three hours before it opens to the public. She's livestreaming via Alibaba's app Taobao and speaking to between 17,000 and 19,000 fashion-savvy consumers in China who are looking to buy the 100-plus curated pieces that Wu has chosen at the New York-based store. Her team of three are hard at work, too, either measuring the exact dimensions of a garment or accessory, or responding to the messages and inquiries that are popping up on the livestream's feed. As they go through each item — discussing the designer, the product's material and style, sizing, backstory, etc. — orders are placed on Taobao as the ShopShops team in Beijing is keeping track, and then they're shipped by a U.S. forwarder to the customer directly.
According to Wu, ShopShops garners an average of $6,000 in sales per store event, having held just over 200 events across Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Miami since its launch. "From a very early stage, we were only doing six or seven events a month. Now, we're doing one almost every day," says Wu, standing to the side while the rest of her colleagues showcase more inventory from Opening Ceremony. "I think last month, we did 27, and the month prior, we did 25." Between September of last year and this June, the company had already hit more than $1 million in total sales.
Watching the ShopShops team at work is a little like seeing what your cool best friend discovered from an off-the-beaten-path shopping trip, or, a common comparison that Wu often gets: watching QVC. But this experience — both online and offline — feels much less staged and more insider-y. There's no studio, no crew and no models — although Wu and her team do sometimes outfit themselves in pieces that are for sale. All that ShopShops needs to get in touch with their thousands of shopper-followers is a tripod, an iPhone and a Wi-Fi connection. "We're also different from QVC in the way that we're not one channel — it's interaction," says Wu. "The people ask us questions, and some of them we've already known for a while because they've been following us. We remember their size and who likes what." ShopShops has about 300 regular clients who've reached VIP status, which means that they spend at least $1,500 to more than $5,000 a month on store events.
Wu graduated with a double major in finance and accounting from Sauder's Business School of the University of British Columbia, which she put to use towards a media and advertising job in Beijing. In 2005, she moved to New York City and switched gears to study fashion merchandising at Parsons, and after working for a fashion brand as a merchandiser for three years, Wu founded a boutique in Beijing that carried only U.S. designer brands, including Tory Burch, Loeffler Randall and Helmut Lang, among others. In 2009, she started her own contemporary fashion label, which was sold out of its own boutiques in Beijing, as well as retailers across China. By 2015, she combined her business and fashion knowledge from both the U.S. and Beijing to launch the app ShopShops, which, originally, served as an online directory of U.S. retailers for Chinese travelers whose plans involved a lot of shopping. According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, about 2.6 million Chinese visitors to the U.S. spent $34.8 billion within the first 10 months of 2016, which averages $13,400 per traveler.
When Wu was accepted into the startup accelerator XRC Labs at Parsons in 2016, ShopShops had pivoted to provide cross-border, online-to-offline commerce between U.S. brick-and-mortars and consumers in China. "The ShopShops experience is very visual and highly personalized because Liyia's team knows the products and their audience so well. They've really tapped into how consumers want to shop conveniently on their phone," says Pano Anthos, founder of XRC Labs. And although e-commerce and mobile shopping continue to rise, along with the spending power of Chinese consumers, a recent study by L2 says "most Western brands have yet to offer content that caters to the region," with the exception of Net-a-Porter and Farfetch, which offers Chinese-language content as an option for online shoppers.
"The store's location itself has a purpose, display has a purpose, but on e-commerce, all we see is an image of someone wearing it, or just a picture with a white background," says Wu. "There's no personality. ShopShops wants to provide that direct link where you can feel like you're physically in the store and shopping and meeting the people." In addition to livestream videos of shoppable product, Wu and her team of hosts also give a tour of the store at the beginning and end of each livestream, as well as introduce the store's owner, which, in Opening Ceremony’s case, was co-founder Carol Lim.
Perhaps you can call ShopShops a more elevated and streamlined version of daigou, the Chinese term for "buying on behalf of" business that requires someone to purchase luxury items overseas, then directly give or ship the product to a China-based client. Instead, ShopShops is creating an interactive experience for remote shoppers, almost daily, while exposing them to interesting and emerging retailers and brands.
"Chinese consumers, especially cross-border, are very well-educated shoppers," says Wu. "They want to get things they don't have. They want the top of the line and are willing to pay the price for it. Before, it was all about big brands, having the logo on their body. Now, the trend is starting to move to something unique, something different, something nobody has." One example is Wu introducing the up-and-coming footwear brand Gray Matters her ShopShops followers from an Anthom store event in New York. "So far, we've sold more than 100 pairs of shoes. They're very comfortable, not extremely luxury — about $500 shoes — and people love them," says Wu. "They order first to learn about the brand, and our customers repurchase."
Though ShopShops is still fairly young as a company, it's already expanded into beauty, with C.O. Bigelow in May, and Wu still has a few more stores and brands on her to events wish list, including Dover Street Market and Reformation. She also hopes to eventually build livestreaming capabilities so that ShopShops can exclusively host store events on its app, as well as allow other stores to livestream their own events.
"ShopShops is about delivering a real shopping experience, virtually, to our customers, cross-border or not," says Wu. "We have viewers watching us when they were showering — that's the experience that can be delivered. Even when you don't travel, you can still discover something unique and different."
Note: We updated this post to reference ShopShops as one word.