The inside of a b8ta store
Photo: b8ta

How b8ta is reinventing QVC, with a retail twist

Protocol Next Up

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: B8ta is reinventing QVC-style TV shopping, and CES may itself be ripe for reinvention. Also: Really old … cereal?

How b8ta is reinventing QVC, with a retail twist

When retail innovator b8ta saw its foot traffic crater during the early days of the pandemic, its staff began experimenting with video to bring hands-on product demonstrations to people cooped up at home.

Those experiments have since turned into b8ta TV, a 24/7 stream of product demos and shopping videos. “We’re all in on video, it’s been huge for us,” said b8ta CEO Vibhu Norby during Protocol’s expert discussion on holiday shopping this week.

  • B8ta’s embrace of video is also front and center on the company’s website, which used to look like a typical ecommerce site. Now, it features an EPG with multiple channels focused on different brands and products. “We produced thousands and thousands of hours of content in the last year,” Norby said. Engagement on the site has nearly quadrupled since the change, he disclosed.
  • Some of those videos are pre-produced, while others are streamed live directly from one of b8ta’s Bay Area stores. “People love engaging with things that are live,” Norby said.
  • B8ta isn’t just using its stores as studio space, but also encouraging viewers to shop there. On occasion, on-air talent will announce a giveaway, with products that can be picked up in person.
  • When the company first announced b8ta TV in February, it touted an audience of 150,000 monthly viewers. Norby didn’t want to share any updated metrics this week, but the company’s YouTube page shows that some of its videos regularly amass six-digit view counts.

There’s a resurgence of shopping TV, and b8ta is just the latest example. Video-driven social commerce has been huge in China, and everyone has been trying to figure out how to replicate those success stories in the West.

  • This includes Amazon, which has its own network of Amazon Live shopping channels. But while b8ta is using hired talent to broadcast from its stores, Amazon is relying on influencers to stream product demos from their homes.
  • Some of the influencers participating in Amazon’s livestreams include “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Porsha Williams, Victoria's Secret model Miranda Kerr and Instagram-famous fashion designer Aimee Song.
  • While these influencers do draw a crowd, lesser-known broadcasters on Amazon Live at times talk to single-digit audiences.

Amazon Live is molded after Twitch, which isn’t surprising, given that Amazon owns the livestreaming platform. B8ta, on the other hand, resembles something more akin to a hip version of QVC.

  • “We love QVC,” Norby admitted. “I’m happy to be called next-gen QVC.” In addition to being one of b8ta’s investors, QVC is also proving that there is money in video shopping: The cable network’s parent company generated revenue of $14.2 billion last year.

In a way, b8ta is approaching video shopping like its take on retail: Instead of building out a traditional network of stores that sell what everyone else is selling, the company has been working both with small startups and big department store chains to lower the barrier of entry to retail. B8ta stores and b8ta TV feature speakers, wearables and coffee makers you may not find in any other store.

  • The company has been expanding on this with a new partnership with Indiegogo, and is now producing an Indiegogo TV channel to highlight crowdfunding projects.

Expect more to come along those lines. “Video shopping works,” Norby said. “It’s the future of experiential.”

Check out a video of the entire event, also featuring senior Foursquare strategist Emily Owayni and Woot co-founder Darold Rydl, on YouTube.

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Maybe it’s time to rethink CES

“Are you planning to be in-person in Vegas this year, especially in light of the new COVID variant?” The question came via email this week, a day after I published a story on Protocol about the fate of CES during these uncertain late-pandemic times. It’s one of many I have received in recent weeks, with people cautiously asking about my plans. I’ve sent a few similar emails, and received a lot of TBDs, as many people seem to be waiting until the very last minute to make up their minds.

CES 2022 will be in person, unlike last year’s all-virtual show, and will have vaccine requirements and mask mandates. People won’t even be able to catch a shuttle ride if they’re not fully vaccinated.

  • The pandemic will nonetheless keep plenty of people at home, either due to health and safety concerns, or because of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.
  • Past shows have attracted up to 180,000 attendees. CTA, the group putting on CES, is expecting “tens of thousands” of in-person attendees this year.
  • A bunch of exhibitors will also be MIA, with Ford, GoPro and Haier/GE Appliances among the bigger ones to skip the show.
  • Last month, CTA executives said they had signed up “over 1,700” exhibitors. In November 2019, that number was already at 4,500.

CES 2022 will also once again have a virtual component, for which you will be able to sign up on Dec. 9. I will be among those people tuning in from afar; I haven’t skipped the in-person part of the show since 2013. I’ll miss being in Vegas, wandering the floor, stumbling across weird and wonderful gadgets and randomly bumping into people between meetings.

Part of me wonders whether the show as we know it has run its course, and whether it’s time to reinvent CES in a smaller and more focused fashion. And don’t get me wrong, I’m one of those people who loved going.

  • Even in 2020, CES already seemed a shadow of its former self. Two years ago, the trade war kept many Chinese companies and executives at home, and even some Western companies decided that it wasn’t worth spending millions on expensive booths overrun by people looking for freebies.
  • One of those companies is Intel, which in previous years spent around $5 million on its booth, as someone in the know told me at the time. In 2020, Intel rented out a restaurant instead, which was open by invitation only.

How should CES look instead? To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to break up the event across verticals, and not assume that TVs, cars, phones, drones and massage chairs are all equally relevant to the same audience. Maybe putting on live keynotes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore, especially now that companies like Apple introduce their new products with what effectively amounts to hour-long promotional videos without celebrity meltdowns. Or maybe we’ll just have to re-create Las Vegas in the metaverse.

Fast forward

Comcast’s cable TV bundle is getting more expensive. Get ready for another bump in cord-cutting numbers, as the cable company is raising prices across its markets come January.

Sonos is preparing to launch a smaller subwoofer. The smart speaker maker’s mobile app leaked news of an incoming “Sub Mini.”

Apple’s AR/VR headset will launch next year, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has been right about these things more than once. Kuo thinks the high-end headset will feature processors as powerful as Apple’s desktop computers, which should significantly raise the price tag.

The Quest is getting better mixed-reality recording. A new update allows people to record themselves in their favorite VR apps and games, which should help promote VR to people who haven't tried it.

The backlash against NFT fandom is here. BTS fans aren’t happy about the group’s decision to get into NFTs, and they’re not the only ones upset about collectibles becoming investment vehicles.

A VR diversity training company used white actors for Black characters. The company justified the decision by saying the practice was necessary to scale its business. Yikes.

Auf wiedersehen

Being a fan isn’t easy these days, especially when it comes to merch and collectibles. Sure, there are plenty of NFT projects competing for your money and attention. However, there’s always a chance that other fans will turn on you, or scammers will steal your tokens, or pirates will, well, pirate them. And what if the NFT itself is a copyright violation? If you want to avoid all that hassle, I’d suggest you buy something more old school. How about cereal, for instance? Netflix is selling some limited-edition breakfast flakes for “Stranger Things” fans, complete with a missing person’s ad for Barb. Just be mindful that the actual cereal may have expired in 1986.

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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