Alibaba's InTime department store chain turns to live-streaming to boost sales during coronavirus

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    Sales associates at one of Alibaba-owned InTime’s store display products for sale during a livestream.

    InTime | Alibaba

    InTime, one of China’s largest department store operators that’s owned by e-commerce giant Alibaba, turned to livestreaming and online sales during China’s coronavirus lockdown, its CEO Chen Xiaodong told CNBC.

    The move helped the company significantly boost its digital revenue, he added, while pledging to continue opening more physical locations.

    The digital push underscores how InTime has been able to leverage the e-commerce might and logistics scale of Alibaba in order to survive the lockdown, which saw its 65 stores closed for a number of weeks. Alibaba acquired InTime in 2017.

    Meanwhile, retailers around the world have faced store closures and bankruptcies as a result of the pandemic. 

    Sales in May had almost fully recovered to levels seen in the same period last year, while foot traffic in stores was just 70% of what it was, Chen told CNBC on Thursday. He said the company’s digital push had helped it to achieve that.

    InTime has an app called Miaojie which people can order from. Deliveries are made to customers using Alibaba’s logistics network.

    InTime has also jumped on the livestreaming bandwagon, a popular way of shopping in China. In some of China’s e-commerce apps, users will often see videos of people talking about products. They’re then able to buy items from that livestream.

    While sales remain low from this shopping method, it does help to drive people to an online store or brand. 

    And it has helped InTime. Nearly 20% of sales this year has come from online versus a “single digit” portion in 2019, Chen said, adding he expects that figure could potentially reach 50% next year. 

    Chen said the company has plans to ramp up its livestreaming efforts. It doubled its livestreaming sessions — from 100 to 200 — during the height of the pandemic, and used sales associates from its stores to feature on the videos.

    It was hosted via Taobao Live, the livestreaming platform run by Alibaba. Taobao is one of the China’s most popular e-commerce apps, which helps InTime get customers. 

    “The livestreaming is booming in a period of pandemic but I think in a normal time, we also will focus on this kind of tools,” Chen said. 

    “The traditional service in our department stores or shopping mall, they only can serve one people or two. Right now (with livestreaming) they can serve a bunch of people in the same time.”

    He added that InTime will increase the number of products on sale via livestreaming and content. 

    Other companies are doing the same. JD.com, Alibaba’s fiercest rival in China, on Wednesday announced a partnership with livestreaming platform Kuaishou. Users of that app will be able to purchase products via JD without leaving the Kuaishou app. 

    Meanwhile, InTime also plans to open more physical store locations, according to Chen. In contrast, retailers in the U.S. such as Victoria’s Secret’s parent company L Brands and J.C. Penney, which have been hard hit by the coronavirus have decided to close stores

    “As our plan, we will open five to eight stores per year,” Chen said.

    So far, InTime has not opened any new stores this year. The company added four new locations in 2019. 

    — Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Chen said his company will focus on tools such as livestreaming.