It’s 10 a.m. on a bright fall day in upstate New York and the premium outlet mall Woodbury Common is just waking up. Associates are unlocking doors and the day’s first shoppers are milling about, enjoying the sunshine. But amidst the calm, there’s a flurry of activity as one group makes its way across the paved pathways of the outdoor shopping center.
Influencer duo XinShiDanDan are hosting a livestream and attracting spectators in their wake. Their primary audience isn’t the handful of curious consumers here in Woodbury though — it’s hundreds of thousands of shoppers in China who are ending their day (it’s 10 p.m. there) by virtually visiting one of New York’s most famed retail attractions.
This livestream is one of the first outputs of the new partnership between mall owner Simon’s online marketplace Shop Premium Outlets (SPO) and Alibaba’s cross-border ecommerce platform Tmall Global. It was by all measures a huge success — within the first minute viewers increased 10X from 2,000 to 20,000; by the end, 1.37 million people in China were watching.
“The key thing about this is opening up all of these stores and that store inventory to the Chinese consumer virtually,” said Greg Giraudi, President of SPO in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “For customers who haven’t been able to travel here since COVID, we’re able to virtually bring them here and enable them to shop like they are in the store. They are actually buying that store inventory; that is the key, because that’s the whole goal of what we’re trying to do it with Shop Premium Outlets — open up that store inventory [to an online audience]. This partnership with Tmall Global is an extension of that, bringing in the Chinese customer.”
Until now, SPO was only available to U.S. shoppers — and even that was a logistical feat. As Giraudi points out, digitizing off-price inventory is a huge challenge, which is why the off-price market has been much slower to move online. But Simon, through its SPO joint venture with Rue Gilt Groupe, is finding a way to do just that. Now it’s leveraging that platform to bring these same brands to Chinese consumers, who are still facing lockdowns and travel restrictions, through its partnership with Tmall Global.
“Chinese consumers are a huge shopper base for these outlets, and Woodbury in particular is a tourist destination,” said Tony Shan, Head of Tmall Global for the Americas in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “But with the pandemic, traffic has been down, which is why we’re so excited to be able to bring these products to [Chinese consumers] at home.”
Without the Tmall partnership it would be infinitely harder for SPO to reach these Chinese consumers, said Giraudi: “It’s not just the technology, it’s the process and the know-how of running [this kind of program],” he said. “The way the audience built over the livestream, that’s the result of years of expertise. And Tmall Global has a logistics solution, so they take care of all the import-export logistics, which is obviously key. A big part of it is the front end, the livestream, but then there’s a lot that goes on in the back end, that part that nobody sees — that’s the unsexy part, but it’s a very, very important part of what Tmall Global is able to do.”
Indeed, through its partnership with Tmall, Simon is able to:
- Tap into technology and expertise from the cutting-edge world of Chinese ecommerce;
- Offer the brands in its property portfolio an alternative to full-blown digitization of their outlet inventory via livestreaming; and
- Deliver fast, reliable fulfillment to Chinese customers.
Going Live from Woodbury Common
While some might think livestreaming is as simple as turning on a phone camera and talking, a livestream at the scale of what Tmall and SPO pulled off on Nov. 4 requires a special kind of mastery.
The stream kicked off with a special introduction from Giraudi himself, who even attempted to speak a little Chinese. Giraudi’s status as one of the top executives at SPO, combined with his endearing unease on camera, instantly sent a message to the audience that they were getting special “insider access” to Woodbury Common.
Giraudi was followed by XinShiDanDan, who handled the bulk of the stream. While not well known in the West, Quentin Albert and Benjamin Thomas are a big deal in China (12 million fans on Douyin, the Chinese TikTok). The French and American natives, respectively, both speak Chinese and have been wooing fans in Asia for years with their engaging wit and boyish charm.
On their tour of Woodbury, they visited the Michael Kors, Coach and Stuart Weitzman stores, all of which feature primarily women’s fashion. While gamely showcasing items and attempting to answer viewer questions, it was host Zoe Zhang, Co-founder of livestreaming consultancy And Luxe, who kept them on script. She handled the shooting of the livestream (all done on a phone) so was behind the camera for most of the event, skillfully managing viewer comments and questions, narrating the action and prompting XinShiDanDan with product details or promotional information when needed.
The whole event was an intricate two-hour dance, and while it felt very natural and off-the-cuff, one would be mistaken if they thought it didn’t take a lot of work. Mark Yuan, CEO of And Luxe, which produced the stream, said that successful hosts must know the details of hundreds of products so they can answer any question — there’s no telling what viewers will ask, especially when there are over a million of them.
For this particular stream the whole event was choreographed in advance — what stores they would visit and when as well as what they would do in each store. For example, as the troupe traveled from Michael Kors to Coach, Zhang kept the walk interesting by challenging Albert with Chinese and French tongue twisters, which the audience loved.
A Low-Lift Way to Bring In-Store Inventory Online
For SPO, there is an important business goal behind all this on-screen fun — helping its outlet mall brands reach online audiences. And despite the work that goes into doing them well, livestreaming can actually be an easy entry point.
“Some of these brands may have inventory that’s not even digitized for online,” said Giraudi. “But we can come in and run a livestream and it doesn’t need to be digitized. There’s no production, you don’t need a high-quality PDP page, but you can still unlock the inventory in a very low-cost way by selling through a livestream event. If we were to wait for that outlet brand to finally digitize its products, it could be years or they could just decide to never do it, so initiatives like this are key.”
In fact, Simon outlet mall brands don’t even have to be integrated into the online SPO platform in order to participate in the Tmall livestreaming partnership. However, if they are already integrated into SPO, they can offer up that online inventory in their livestreams along with the product in stores.
The livestream with XinShiDanDan took place during Alibaba’s 11.11 (a.k.a. Singles’ Day) celebrations, but it was only the beginning. Throughout the month of November, SPO has hosted a whole slate of livestreams culminating in another major event on Black Friday that brought in more than 2 million viewers.
Lynn Dong, General Manager of Tmall Global flew in from China for the Black Friday event. “Aside from bringing international brands to China, we also hope to convey different global lifestyles that are often associated with these products and their brand stories,” said Dong in comments shared with Retail TouchPoints. “Especially with our Gen Z customers who like to express themselves through the items they purchase, we hope they can discover new trends and stay in tune with everything that’s happening globally.”
SPO’s Giraudi also hopes to expand the partnership to other Simon Premium Outlets locations: “This being the flagship Premium Outlet, of course, it would start here [at Woodbury], but we’d like to take these viewers to different locations like Las Vegas or Desert Hills in California, give them a different experience and tap into different stores,” he said. “Other outlets are clamoring to do this.”
Getting the Goods to China
Before any of that expansion can happen though, these first livestreams from Woodbury Common have to result in happy customers, which means dealing with the “unsexy” side of cross-border commerce — the last-mile logistics.
“It’s really hard,” said Giraudi bluntly. “It takes Tmall Global, us and the stores — there are a lot of people on their side and our side coming together to make this operationally work in a way that provides a good experience to the consumers.”
Here’s how they are doing it: Livestreams are hosted, and orders come in through Alibaba’s Taobao Live app. SPO has an integration with Taobao Live, so at that point the orders pass over to SPO. The process of how orders are fulfilled varies depending on whether the brand is integrated into SPO or not, but either way, products are collected and then shipped to Tmall’s logistics warehouse in the U.S. Tmall then handles the process of exporting those products, importing them into China and delivering them to customers.
While orders don’t arrive in days, as they might with domestic sales, it’s all “about beating the expectations of competitors” in cross-border, said Giraudi. SPO orders handled by Tmall will typically arrive in a week to 10 days, which is far faster than other international options available to Chinese customers.
What Lies Ahead
While reaching Chinese consumers is a great boost for Simon and the brands at its outlet malls, Giraudi’s first priority is building out the core, U.S.-focused SPO platform. “We’re continuing to focus most of our efforts on getting all of these brands integrated into our platform, because then we can start doing omnichannel initiatives where somebody can buy on our marketplace and fulfill out of the store, whether that’s pickup or ship from store,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want our customers to be able to purchase online and decide how they want that order fulfilled.”
Another way Simon is helping expand options for its customers and its brands is through Simon Search, which allows shoppers to search in-stock inventory from participating brands at Simon mall properties.
As for whether Giraudi sees a budding career for himself in front of the livestream camera after the Woodbury event, he answered with a laugh and a definitive “no,” saying, “I think I’m more suited to the operational aspects.” To be sure, there will be plenty of that to keep him busy as Simon continues to build out the infrastructure to bring its outlet brands to digital shoppers.