Li Jiaqi Cover
Photo Credit: Wang Siqi, screenshots from Taobao
BUSINESS

12 Hours in the Lipstick King’s E-Commerce Empire

Amid the fervor of Singles Day, a 12-hour livestream with e-commerce luminary Li Jiaqi unveils his many talents beyond mere marketing savvy

Just a few hours into Li Jiaqi’s marathon livestream, I’m already conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs. As I stare at the screen on my phone filled with comments from over 10 million other viewers, I catch myself subconsciously opening links to products I know I don’t need. As the hours tick by, the refrain of Li and his team of pale, beautiful, smiling livestreamers keeps ringing in my ears: “3, 2, 1: The link is up!” they say whenever a product goes live.

The 12-hour livestream on e-commerce platform Taobao marks the crescendo and the end of China’s Singles Day shopping extravaganza. Prepared with sweatpants, greasy snacks, and coffee, I plan to watch the entire thing—led by Li, China’s most famous livestreaming salesperson who is revered as the “Lipstick King” for his adeptness in selling cosmetics. More than 80 products will be showcased, most for a few minutes only, with the rest of the time filled with banter between the hosts.

Singles Day, originally conceived by lonely hearts as an antidote to Valentine’s Day, has evolved into a colossal shopping event, dwarfing global counterparts like Black Friday. It was once a 24-hour sales event but now stretches for almost two weeks, culminating in Li’s livestream that ends at midnight on November 11. In 2015, Alibaba (the parent company of Taobao and Tmall, another e-commerce platform) reported sales of 91 billion yuan, but, according to Syntun, an e-commerce data analysis company, on November 11, 2020, there were 333 billion yuan of sales across all e-commerce platforms in China. This year, Syntun put the figure 278 billion yuan.

Two hosts from Li’s team showcasing onion bread, Lipstick King livestream on Singles Day

Two hosts from Li’s team showcasing onion bread (screenshot from Taobao)

Li makes a significant contribution to this number. According to news outlet Jiupai, he and his team sold 25 billion yuan of merchandise across the two weeks of the festival this year (though Li has refuted that figure, without offering his own numbers). But as I start watching the stream, I notice Li looks a lot younger than when I last saw him. Am I hallucinating already, I think, just seconds into my 12-hour mission?

It turns out one super-seller isn’t enough. As the hours unfold, an extensive team of over 20 hosts, under the Shanghai-based livestreaming agency Meione, rotate in and out of the stream. The hosts (some male, some female, but all pale and beautiful) showcase an eclectic mix of products ranging from bread buns and instant soup to toothpaste, leather shoes, and sofas.

I find Li’s team a reassuring bunch, particularly in a commercial environment that is sometimes predatory. Consumers have criticized Singles Day sales for increasingly complex and, at times, convoluted order-placing mechanics and bundled items that aim to confuse and entice buyers. Some sellers require consumers to make down payments on products before the sales begin, with the remaining balance paid on a specified date. These down payments are typically non-refundable during the pre-sale period. In this opaque world of discounts, Li and his team promise transparency to customers—the audience trusts them.

Return of a king

Five and a half hours into the stream, the moment I and millions of viewers have been eagerly awaiting finally arrives. Li makes his entrance. The 31-year-old from Hunan province has worked himself up from an over-the-counter cosmetics salesman to being on the 2021 Time100 list of the world’s most influential people. He is a striking figure clad in a black sweater that accentuates the paleness of his meticulously makeup-covered face.

His appearance, however, betrays signs of weariness: his voice is hoarse, his nose stuffy, painting the picture of a man who has perhaps been pushing his limits. He later describes his grueling work schedule, spanning the entire year with various shopping events and countless shows, leaving scarce time for rest. The days following the Singles Day celebrations are among the few respites he and his team get from this relentless cycle, he tells his audience. According to Shanghai Securities News, Li made over 1.8 billion yuan in 2021, so perhaps his heavy workload is justifiable.

In another studio space, Li and a co-host showcase bedroom products

In another studio space, Li and a co-host showcase bedroom products (screenshot from Taobao)

Li’s presence is magnetic as he takes his time introducing dozens of products and interacting with his audience along the way. “Let me check for you,” Li says to a viewer asking which moisturizer is suitable for a 19-year-old. “So if you’re looking for an anti-aging bundle, if you’re 19, I suggest you look at our bundle number 210.” He seems as composed as ever, his demeanor betraying none of the tumult he’s endured recently.

In September, Li chastised a viewer who commented that a 79-yuan eyebrow pencil from Chinese cosmetics brand Florasis had become pricier. “How is it expensive?” Li retorted, before lecturing his audience further: “You should look at yourself: Have your wages increased in all these years? Have you been working hard?”

His comments ignited a firestorm of criticism and led to a significant drop in his followers—nearly a million on Weibo alone. Li issued two apologies: one written and another tearful admission of regret during a subsequent livestream. In 2022, Li also spent over three months offline for reasons that were never explained.

Tonight, however, Li is back in the spotlight with the finesse of a man who has learned to navigate the delicate dance of public and regulatory expectations. “If this is not within your budget, you can choose the more affordable option,” he says at one point.

This is not the only tightrope Li is walking. His livestream, large parts of it a culinary showcase ranging from the simple joys of chocolate snacks to fast-food comforts, also deftly adheres to official campaigns against food waste. When he starts selling a 76-yuan coupon for three whole KFC chickens, Li tastes the food, extols its virtues, and then conspicuously passes the leftovers to pale-faced team members lingering in the background, who finish it off.

Selling community

It’s clear throughout that Li and his team are talking to an audience of young women, referring to viewers as “sisters (妹妹们)” or “babes (宝贝们).” This is smart: women spend far more on retail than men. Online, male products sell less well even than those aimed at pets. In some ways, Li’s livestream feels like a safe space in an online environment often hostile to women.

Not everyone is happy about Li’s success and the rampant consumerism he and Singles Day encourage. “A bunch of idiots, still buying” and “How is anybody still buying?” are two of the most “liked” comments under a Weibo post by Jiupai that reported Li’s team’s sales at 25 billion yuan.

After 12 hours of products and banter, the hosts say goodbye to their audience

After 12 hours of products and banter, the hosts say goodbye to their audience (screenshot from Taobao)

But at midnight, as the curtain falls on Li’s livestream, I’m beginning to understand what keeps people coming back—even lonely lurkers like me who are just here for some company and entertainment.

Li and his co-hosts forge a virtual bond with their viewers through the language of camaraderie and community. They weave words of gratitude and togetherness into the fabric of their sales pitch, thanking their female viewers for support and company. As the final minutes tick away, this sentiment intensifies; all hosts step forward, offering their individual farewells, pledging a continuous companionship.

The night concludes with a promise written on a cardboard heart presented to the camera: “Rest assured, all you ladies.” It’s a nuanced endnote to a day spent at the crossroads of commerce, culture, and community, reflecting the calculated blend of marketing savvy and social awareness that defines Li’s brand.

But my main feeling after 12 hours on China’s most famous livestream, is exhaustion. I head to bed before I get the itch to click more links to products I don’t need.

SHARE:

Related Articles