A Welden handbag.

If husband and wife team Mark Yuan and Zoe Zhang, founders of And Luxe Inc., stop to check out fashion apparel or accessories at a trade show booth and they are “wowed” by any of the offerings, there’s a good chance that brand’s product will be selling out in China.

But Mark and Zoe are not placing that product in traditional Chinese retail venues. Instead, the pair operates a store on Alibaba’s Taobao Global platform and they “live-stream” shopping events to as many as 40,000 viewers at a time. Last fall, Sandy Friesen, founder of handbag brand Welden, discovered firsthand how the Taobao live-streaming gives immediate access to “millions of customers on the platform.”

Mark told WWD the platform offers Chinese shoppers an interactive and dynamic experience with American brands that they crave. Here, Sandy discusses the platform, her brand and how it is transforming her business.

WWD: Welden is a relatively new brand, but you’ve seen tremendous success over the last several months, particularly in China. How did it all happen?

Sandy Friesen: When we first launched in 2015, we originally planned to sell direct-to-consumer but were finding it difficult to drive traffic to our site and break through the noise given all the other brands out there. In 2016, we shifted our strategy to expand into the wholesale business and then secured partnerships with Shopbop and Nordstrom, which helped us quickly build brand awareness and credibility.

As our wholesale footprint was growing organically, we expanded our reach by participating at a curated trade show in September 2017. That’s where our China story started. Mark and Zoe from And Luxe Inc. were walking the show and Welden caught their eye. As we started to tell them about who we were, they explained to us their position in the market: buyers and brand developers who showcased hand-selected products they loved to their 40,000-plus followers in China via livestream on Alibaba’s Taobao Global platform. Our interest was piqued and learning they have worked with 300 U.S. brands since 2009, we felt confident we should give this new concept a try.

Sandy Friesen

Sandy Friesen  Courtesy image.

We agreed to do a trial live-stream with them and showcase 40 of our handmade handbags. We had no idea what the reaction would be, but the experience changed everything for us. Their followers reacted immediately to our products — and we began getting live feedback and positive engagement right off the bat. We went from looking at China as an intimidating, complicated market where we didn’t understand the language and would be dealing with so many unknown challenges — to simply shipping product to our partners right here in the U.S. It opened our eyes to a whole new way of doing business.

WWD: What is Taobao Global? What did you learn about Chinese consumers by selling on the platform? How are they different from their U.S. counterparts?

S.F.: Taobao Global is an online retail platform where small businesses from around the world can sell into China through Alibaba’s network of wholesale trade partners. These partners then handle all of the details around marketing, selling and delivering products in China. The platform has really become a destination for very sophisticated Chinese consumers to be able to find high-quality foreign goods from small and medium brands like us.

Compared with our U.S. customers, we’ve learned that Chinese consumers are similar in that they are fashion-forward and looking for something unique to help them stand out from the crowd. However, we’ve discovered that Chinese shoppers tend to be even more adventurous and focused on quality. They love fashion that is edgy and different — whether that means vibrant colors, unexpected styles or added accessories. They are also meticulous about how a product is made and are examining even the most minute details of our handbags, from the seams to the packaging.

A Welden bag.  Courtesy image.

Our customers in China have told us that they love our unique and recognizable geometric patterns and handwoven designs. They love our quality. They want to be in at the beginning. They are highly engaged consumers as well, and we often get pictures of when our customers receive their bags.

WWD: Tell us more about the live-stream. How does it work and how did it help Welden break into a new market? What kind of success have you seen?

S.F.: Using a live-stream is different than a typical retail experience. It’s almost like “QVC meets Facebook Live” and then also coupled with an influencer, like Zoe from And Luxe Inc., who encourages her followers to learn more about and purchase from relatively new brands like Welden through this live, interactive shopping experience. Customers can watch the show live through their smartphones and directly hear us talk about our brand and the story behind our products.

But what’s different from QVC is two-fold: first the livestream is directly linked to a customer’s Alibaba account, which allows them to make purchases with just two taps on their smartphone screen. Second, we can see customer comments in real time and truly engage with customers — often thousands each show — in real time, with different customers offering their reactions and telling us what they hope to see in the future. The enormous amount of instantaneous feedback we receive is immensely helpful and even helps us shape how we keep our inventory, which is a potent help for not only understanding our customers, but also for our bottom line. It’s like having a crystal ball.

WWD: How has the live-stream and the feedback you get from customers impacted your product design process or other areas of your business and the consumer experience?

S.F.: The feedback we receive through the livestreaming helps us to focus our design process. Our customers in China are allowing us to push the envelope in terms of color, size, functionality and quality. They are willing to pay more for the details.

On one occasion, many customers expressed that they liked quite a few styles but would have preferred them in red. So very quickly we started working with Zoe to identify what exactly those customers were looking for, and were able to fast-track the development of our bags in red. We quickly sold out of red bag in every style. This level of consumer feedback and response was really unimaginable before we began livestreaming. With this new technology and platform, we can also reduce unnecessary production and inventory for certain styles, because we already know what our customers prefer before they are put into production.

WWD: What is the market opportunity for a company like Welden in today’s retail environment here in the U.S.? Can you replicate this model in the U.S.? Why or why not?

S.F.: A first glance into this “type” of model would have been a home shopping channel like a HSN or QVC where consumers could interact but only if their phone call was selected. Then we saw companies branching into Facebook live or even using Insta-stories to have more “live” contact with their audience. All of these models are helpful for a brand but live-streaming takes it to another level. Through live-streaming and direct engagement with consumers, we are gaining brand awareness through greater exposure much more quickly, gaining direct feedback which helps mold our brand and, in the end, turn a lot of product within a very short time.

Retail in the U.S. is changing, and consumers want to know more about the story behind the products they’re buying. Live-streams enable us to tell our whole story by directly engaging with the woman who wears you. We think this concept will catch on in the U.S. It’s just a matter of time.

WWD: How does your success in China translate to your business here in the U.S., and what do you think the future will look like as you continue to grow globally?

S.F.: Our success in China has been amazing, and in turn has given us greater exposure and credibility in the U.S. By selling in the China market, and partnering with Alibaba, we’re driving greater brand exposure and credibility. This kind of buzz is fueling more awareness of our brand here at home and opening doors to new sales opportunities with other wholesalers that we wouldn’t have been able to pursue before.

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