Walmart looks to grab consumers attention with star-studded online shopping events – CNBC

The Walmart+ home screen on a laptop computer in Brooklyn, New York on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.

Gabby Jones | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Walmart is adding another tool to its arsenal this holiday season to drum up online sales: More than 30 livestreaming events, including one with musician Jason Derulo that kicks off Cyber Week.

Over the past year, the retail giant has tested the shoppable events on different social media platforms. It hosted its first livestream last December, when it had a holiday shop-along. It enlisted influencers to host a spring beauty event on TikTok. It featured celebrity chef Ree Drummond to talk about her Pioneer Woman line of cookware and more on Facebook. In total, it has had 15 events so far.

Now, Chief Marketing Officer William White said the live events will become a bigger piece of Walmart’s digital strategy.

“If you think about the number of livestreams that we’ll be doing, the number of social commerce partners that we have, we’re really building scale at this point,” he said in an interview with CNBC. He said the retailer will step up the frequency but does not have a set number in mind on a weekly or monthly basis.

White, an alumnus of big-box competitor Target, said he sees the events as a way to strengthen Walmart’s brand, build an emotional connection with shoppers and “shorten the distance between inspiration and purchase.”

He declined to share sales numbers but said Walmart is seeing high conversion rates, watch times and social media followers with each event.

For Walmart, the strategy could help drive e-commerce sales. The retailer’s digital sales accelerated during the pandemic, but that growth rate has slowed significantly as more shoppers have returned to stores. E-commerce sales in the U.S. grew 79% in the fiscal year ended Jan. 31.

In the most recent quarter, that growth rate fell short of expectations. Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce sales rose by 8% year over year in the third quarter compared with estimates of 20.5%, according to Refinitiv. That was up slightly from the second quarter’s growth rate of 6%.

On a two-year basis, its U.S. e-commerce growth is large, however. That 8% growth in the third quarter is on top of 79% growth in the year-ago period. E-commerce has not yet become a profitable business for the retailer, however, and it is competing for sales with digital behemoth Amazon.

That’s one of the factors weighing down Walmart shares. The stock is down about 1% this year as of Friday’s close, compared with the S&P 500’s growth of 31% this year.

Livestreaming has become a sales driver for retailers in China, where it has been popularized by Alibaba. In the U.S., however, retailers from Macy’s-owned Bloomingdale’s to Petco have been trying to crack the code and turn the events into a more meaningful part of their businesses. Amazon has a rotating slate of QVC-like live events on its website at nearly all hours of the day.

In the U.S., the livestreaming market was worth about $6 billion last year, according to consumer market research group Coresight Research. It expects the market could eclipse $25 billion by 2023.

Those figures are dwarfed by those in China, where livestreaming drove an estimated $125 billion in sales in 2020, up from $63 billion in 2019, according to Coresight.

Consumers who tune in to Walmart’s live events can learn more about an eyeshadow, sweater or toy and quickly add it to their virtual shopping cart.

White said Walmart is looking for other ways to speed up the checkout experience, such as reducing the number of clicks it takes when someone sees an item they like when scrolling through a social media app.

“When people are in their social feeds and in the digital environments where they’re living, inspiration can strike at any moment,” he said. “We want to make it frictionless for them to shop.”

Walmart has made other moves to make purchases quicker online. It merged its two apps into a single one. It signed a deal with media company Meredith in September to make more ads and content shoppable. If a consumer sees an appealing recipe on, for example, they can click to add all of the ingredients to a virtual grocery cart.

The Walmart event hosted by Derulo will be Twitter‘s first shoppable livestream. The approximately 30-minute show will start at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday and highlight gift items across categories, from apparel and seasonal decor to electronics. Walmart said it will also include special surprise guests.

To drive sales, Walmart is expanding its third-party marketplace, offering speedier home deliveries of online purchases and making it easier to replenish groceries through curbside pickup. Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs told CNBC that the company added 21 million items to its third-party marketplace in the third quarter. It also has a subscription service, Walmart+, which offers perks such as fuel discounts and free home deliveries without a minimum purchase.

— CNBC’s Lauren Thomas and Annie Palmer contributed to this report.

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