Lu Xiaoying, a 61-year-old resident of Chengde in Hebei Province, China, defines herself as a frugal consumer who isn’t particularly inclined to keep up with the latest tech advancements. Until a few months ago, she didn’t even have an account on Taobao, a popular online marketplace run by Alibaba. Now, she frequently buys products on Douyin and Kuaishou, two popular short-video apps. How did that happen, you may wonder?
It’s no secret that ByteDance’s local version of TikTok, Douyin, has built its popularity on young users, and the same can be said for Tencent-backed Kuaishou. Yet, as China’s population grows older, these two platforms are increasingly targeting seniors in their e-commerce offerings. As of June 2020, 22.8% of China’s 940 million internet users were aged 50 or above, 13.6% more compared to 2019.
“Since a friend recommended it, I started buying some items on Douyin and Kuaishou, mostly clothes and small things for the house,” Lu told KrASIA. “Some of the products on the short-video platforms seemed to be of genuine quality, and the price was really attractive. They were even cheaper than on some of the more traditional e-commerce platforms like Taobao, JD.com, and Pinduoduo,” Lu said. “Trust me, I checked,” she quipped with a wry smile.
Lu, who spends much of her time with her two grandchildren, is not a unique case. Among the nearly 6.4 million new Douyin users registered in March 2020, 14.5% of them were over the age of 46, according to Quest Mobile. In 2019, that proportion was 13%. Chinese seniors also spend more time online—nearly five hours a day—up 39% from 2017, per QuestMobile.
With these numbers in mind, it’s no wonder that short-video platforms have been looking to monetize on the trend. To attract more elderly shoppers, short-video apps have cultivated a strong senior-centric influencer category, Ashley Galina Dudarenok, marketing expert and founder of marketing firm Alarice, told KrASIA.
“Many elderly internet celebrities on Douyin and Kuaishou have millions of fans. They have strong personalities, solid reputations, strong creative abilities, and a mature understanding of the format and channel,” she said. For example, one account on Douyin, dubbed “Grandma Wang who only wears high heels,” has amassed 10 million fans in three months, collecting sales of over RMB 5.3 million (USD 820,000) in one of her live broadcasts.
ByteDance has also been testing a specialized version of Douyin for older users, featuring simplified functions and larger font sizes. The company’s efforts coincide with China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s guidelines released at the end of 2020, calling for tech companies to improve accessibility for older and less digitally savvy users by simplifying interfaces and curbing intrusive advertisements.
An overly enticing new shopping experience?
Shopping on short-video apps differs starkly from the objective-based shopping usage of e-commerce platforms like Taobao. Users don’t have to search for the products they want; instead, items are recommended by an algorithm that analyzes customers’ preferences and predicts what they might want to buy.
Short-video apps are also easier for seniors to navigate, as the vertical scroll feature for watching videos on Douyin and Kuaishou is fairly intuitive. Senior users are presented with an intuitive shopping experience presenting fleeting purchase opportunities that take just a few taps to complete. At the same time, most of the products shown in a user’s feed on short-videos apps promote deals that are available only for a limited time, creating “ideal consumption scenarios to stimulate resonance and induce impulse purchases,” Dudarenok said.
Yet, this new shopping experience can also lead to waste and excess. “While shopping on Douyin and Kuaishou, I’ve made some more impulsive purchases than I might have made elsewhere because sometimes supply is limited, and the deal won’t last forever,” Lu explained. Passing up on a great offer can feel like a missed opportunity, she said.
The most popular e-commerce categories on Douyin and Kuaishou are cosmetics, clothing, food, and health and nutritional goods. These two platforms have also been flooding their platforms with subsidies to lure new customers. For instance, Douyin issued around USD 1.5 million worth of subsidies during this year’s 618 e-commerce festival in June.
Scams could also be around the corner, as older users tend to be more susceptible to dishonest merchants looking to swindle buyers in the promotion’s fine print. Chinese netizens have even complained about this on online forums. “My mother has been buying things on Kuaishou, but she has been fooled. Some products are of poor quality, and some merchants won’t deal with customer complaints. I had to contact Kuaishou directly to ask for a refund,” reads one comment on Zhihu, the Chinese Quora-like platform.
Defective or poor quality products are particularly concerning, considering that health and nutritional goods are some of the most popular products among elderly shoppers. “Health management is a big topic for older people, so demand for health-related content is high,” Duderenok said.
Despite the potential pitfalls, as Chinese society continues to age—the country is expected to have around 300 million Chinese senior citizens by the end of 2025—the number of elderly e-commerce users will climb, while tech companies will increasingly focus on catering to their needs.
Short-video platforms are also trying to gain more credibility and trust by signing major brands on their platforms. Douyin unveiled a flagship store feature for brands, promising broader exposure and a higher click-through rate. Over 220 brands, including local giant Perfect Diary, and western firms like Louis Vuitton and Dior, are already on board. Kuaishou, meanwhile, has teamed up with JD Retail to shore up its livestreaming offerings.
“I remember I used to scold my children for spending too much time on their phones and shopping online, but in recent years, I have developed similar habits. They must think I’m a hypocrite,” said a 63-year-old friend of Lu, surnamed Zhou.