I know it’s hard to remember back this far, but people used to shop in physical stores.
They went into retailers not just for masks, cans of black beans, and hardware supplies but to have an entertaining experience—even if they didn’t buy anything.
All this, of course, has been upended by social distancing, retail bankruptcies, and store closures, and no one can say if it will ever come back. At least not in the same way.
Meanwhile, more and more of us appear to be spending more time than ever watching streaming media, particularly Netflix, entertaining ourselves with tigers, Jerry Seinfeld, and at least two minutes of an action movie starring Chris Hemsworth until it’s all too hot to handle.
What if streaming services, whose core function is to entertain, took over the job that physical retail once held and made their entertainment shoppable?
Although the idea of “shoppable TV” has been around since at least the 1980s, we now not only have the technology to make it both possible and pleasurable but we also have the larger economic and societal circumstances that can allow it to be more than a niche activity.
Hear me out. Before saying that this sounds like advertising, let’s take it as a given that Netflix, Disney, or Amazon would never entertain the idea of damaging their respective images with interruptive advertising. That said, they have all shown an appetite to innovate with new ways to connect brands and entertainment. Netflix has done it with brand tie-ups on Stranger Things; Disney through its controlling stake in Hulu, which has an advertising team focused on developing new digital ad products; and most famously, Amazon which transformed its Prime Day concert into a sales bonanza.
These were small experiments built around traditional models of brand awareness and product promotion.
Consider instead what would be possible if these brands connected the data they have from the production process all the way through to distribution and audience targeting.
Imagine if Netflix took all the costume and time-code data that it has for every one of its original productions and connected it with shopping functionality.
It would mean that at any given time, a viewer could find out precisely what the person on screen was wearing—or what types of pans were used in an episode of Chef’s Table, for example—and then with a click, the viewer could buy it. Using a phone as a second screen, this type of shopping wouldn’t even have to pause the program if other people were also watching.
This type of time-coded, live-shopping experience is easy to fathom and has in fact been tested by the fashion brand TopShop through a shoppable live-stream fashion show. With full control of the production pipeline, streaming brands are well-placed to advance this type of technology. You can even imagine Amazon Prime Video pushing the concept further by suggesting alternatives from its own brands, or even similar items that “viewers like you” had previously purchased.
Just last month, Amazon along with Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, announced Common Threads: Vogue x Amazon Fashion, a new storefront featuring 20 high-end and independent brands affected by the pandemic. This is Amazon’s move into the luxury space, but also could lay the foundation for future partnerships.
Obviously not all of the content that the streaming brands produce is suited to the shopping experience, but the current weakness in the retail sector could spur the creation of more content that is fit for purpose. Take, for example, reality TV, which premiered in 2000 with Survivor, but saw huge growth as a result of the 2007-2008 writers’ strike and the lack of new scripted shows being produced.
Now with the retail sector looking to be in structural decline, imagine the profit potential for an Amazon or a Netflix were they to partner with Kendall Jenner (of Kardashians fame) on the launch of her long-awaited beauty brand by promoting a new reality show, about her life and business—and in so doing launching the range exclusively through its shoppable streaming format.
Programmatic product placement
Shoppable entertainment isn’t the only commerce opportunity available to streaming services.
In fact, Netflix gave a hint of the future potential product placement in the Bandersnatch episode of its show Black Mirror, when it gave viewers the ability to pick which cereal the characters had for breakfast. In the Bandersnatch example, the creators filmed two variants and let viewers choose which piece of film to watch, much like choosing your own adventure.
But what if instead of viewers making a conscious choice, that cereal box was just a green screen box and the type of cereal was selected programmatically based on the viewers demographics or past purchase behavior?
This option would need to be in keeping with the story so as to not cause disbelief, but it would open a wide range of options for “embedded advertising.”
The green screen and motion-tracking technologies to make this possible are already commonly used in film production. Combined with new graphics technologies like Unreal Engine 5, which displays near picture-perfect images rendered in real time, and with the programmatic media-buying technologies that already exist within Amazon Media Group and other media vendors, the opportunity for “embedded” or “invisible” advertising to tap into the nearly $600 billion global ad spend may be a powerful temptation for any streaming service.
Certainly, one that their existing treasure trove of viewer data would position them well for.
This is more than just speculation. A version of the technology for shoppable TV is already being tested and rolled out by NBCUniversal, which happens to be launching its own streaming network Peacock in the near term, and in its own words is “hell bent on owning every stage of the purchase funnel,” according to Josh Feldman, EVP and head of marketing and advertising creative for NBCU.
So with $3.5 trillion being spent via e-commerce in 2019, and pre-COVID forecasts estimating this number will increase to $6.5 trillion by 2023, we just might see streaming services look to commerce as their next big growth engine.
All that said, don’t expect any of this tomorrow. Netflix has already stated that its 2020 release slate is completed or in postproduction, and we should expect the same to be true from both Disney+ and Prime Video.
But don’t be surprised to see a few experiments fast-tracked this year as retailers struggle, and the potential for streamers to scale their commerce capabilities as early as mid 2021.
Don’t worry if you used to entertain yourself by shopping.
Soon your entertainment will be shoppable.
Justin Peyton is the chief transformation & strategy officer of Wunderman Thompson APAC, a global communications and technology agency. He helps brands develop future ready solutions for an increasingly digital world.