It has been an era of changes these few years, and it is the whole world’s problem how to adapt to changes. Online business is no exception. Shopping experience used to be one-way, as customers saw only photos and text that were cold and emotionless when they went to an online shop. But it is going through a transformation.

The times of “video commerce” are coming, so it is not enough to just focus on “e-commerce”. Some online shops even make a breakthrough with shoppable livestreams, and we are talking about Boutir’s merchant TINY.

TINY is a Hong Kong toy maker and seller. They have been through highs and lows from the start, which was selling toy cars on eBay. Now they own more than 20 physical shops in Hong Kong and Macau and two online shops.

In 2020, the pandemic had an enormous impact on TINY’s business. How did they overcome that with shoppable livestreams? It is the story TINY’s owner Steve Ng is going to tell.

Started as an eBay toy car seller

Steve made friends with cars when he was a little boy: his father sold cars so he got to ride various private cars, and his mother often took him to a department store to shop for toy cars.

In university, Steve learnt from a computer magazine about an auction website called eBay, where people sold everything. He saw business opportunities when he found toy cars that were 3 to 4 times more expensive in Hong Kong than on eBay.

In 1998, when he was in Year 2, he began to sell them on eBay, and this is where TINY began. He would buy toy cars in class, and after class take photos and upload them to eBay with a black-and-white scanner. In 1999, he graduated and continued this business working alone from home.

Two decades on a roller coaster

In 2009, there was the European debt crisis. After two painful years, in 2011, the eBay shop still had to close. Steve had no choice but to fire 7 out of 14 staff members. Retrospectively, that was the first failure in his career.

“My way of doing business hadn’t changed for more than a decade. The only difference was that back in 1998 only 3 shops sold Tomicar on eBay but in 2011 there were 150. I lost the competition.”

The company then turned to making their own branded remote-controlled toy tanks, and borrowed $600 thousand through the government’s “SME Financing Guarantee Scheme”. The amount saved the company, but debts began to pile up as they got loans of $5 million from three banks over the course of three years.

One day, when a staff member told him cash was not enough for paying both the staff and the debt, he decided it was the end of making toy tanks.

In 2014, the company went back to its origin, which was toy car manufacturing. Steve admits that it was his last straw, but he luckily met three people he would like to thank: one was a Mr Tai who sold a $380,000 mould to Steve for $190,000; Steve’s friend met the other two, who later became investors, at the Hong Kong Computer & Communications Festival.

The friend asked Steve if he would like to sell his toy cars on consignment, and he said yes. The investors were interested in his toy ice cream truck, and decided to put money into it.

The company is called TINY because Steve wants to “make records of images in people’s minds with tiny models”, which depict “the people, the cars and the scenery” of the city. Capturing the uniqueness of Hong Kong, the company aims to create a brand that touches Hongkongers’ hearts.

Steve says his team “will create anything however small the audience is”. “We have 200 permanent products, including niche offerings like Civil Aid Service trucks, Observatory trucks, rickshaws, tow trucks, cargo ships and the iconic scaffolding bamboo trucks.”

TINY also made a desktop stationery set of three public estate playground facilities, namely a spiral slide, a climbing frame and a roundabout, in the hope of “telling the Hong Kong story with Hong Kong toys”.

Besides popular public means of transport and private cars, TINY made a toy car out of the Hong Kong Airport Services truck. (Source: TINY’s Facebook page)

Physical shops saved the company

One year after joining TINY, the investors suggested he do more retail as they saw Steve doing 90% wholesale and 10% retail. Since wholesale more often than not generates much less profit than retail, they thought Steve was not going to make a lot of money.

He was not confident because he did not know much about retail. Not to mention selling products to other merchants so they can make a profit already made him happy.

The investors encouraged him, saying in case of a profit the company got to keep it, and if they made a loss the investors would pay for it. They even found him a space in Langham Place. Steve finally said yes, and this is how TINY had their first brick-and-mortar outlet.

Steve says physical shops saved his company. In 2020, the company joined the Animation-Comic-Game Hong Kong (ACGHK) and acquired products worth $3 million for that. But because of the fourth wave of the pandemic, the government ordered the exhibition be cancelled. Fortunately the physical shops managed to sell many of the products, otherwise the company would not have survived.

In February, 2022, the pandemic was in its fifth wave. As the government banned dining-in in restaurants after 6:00 pm, the streets became quiet, and that had a big impact on TINY’s business.

In March, Steve decided to start doing live shopping on Facebook. After one of the shops closed, shop assistants stayed behind and talked about the products. Customers left comments to buy and paid by bank transfer, while the e-marketing department managed the orders. The first live made $60,000, more than what the shop earned when it was open. Steve was happy, so he continued to do one live in each of his shops.

Shoppable live as a means to adapt to changes

Why did they turn from Facebook to Boutir for livestreaming? Ivy, Steve’s assistant, says there are three reasons: first, customers can watch a replay if they miss a live; second, the system manages orders automatically; third, the company tried using a Taiwanese software before but it did not support many local payment methods. In contrast, Boutir supports most of them, like PayMe, AlipayHK and more. That and consumption vouchers from the government boosted their sales.

Doing live through Boutir, TINY achieved an average watch time of a little less than 28 minutes, 5 times longer than the industry norm. Product click rate went up to 78.6%, 4 times higher than the industry norm.

Ivy says earlier this year they did a 10-hour live with said Taiwanese software, but the orders took them more than 2 months to handle. Steve says with Boutir their “live’s average watch time is 11 times longer than with Facebook, and better yet orders take much less time to manage”. They got a product click rate of 40%, one of the products was even clicked 600 times, and one of the questions got an answer rate of 60%.

They also did five shoppable livestreams in the ACGHK this year. Each of them had more than 1,000 accumulative views on average and got a product click rate of up to 60%.

Customers can replay lives in TINY’s online shop. (Source: TINY LIVE)

Now TINY goes live once a week and has gathered a group of loyal customers. Why do livestreams attract them? Ivy says she keeps watching the shoppable livestreams’ data from the online shop’s back end. With those data she analyses the customers’ age and taste, and then decides what to sell, so the products are really what they like. Live-exclusive products and discounts also keep them watching.

Interaction is another reason why they stay. The hosts are toy car fans themselves and have vast knowledge. They even have their own fans. They tell product stories like shop assistants do in physical shops, so customers feel warm.

Besides, the livestreams are shoppable, meaning customers can shop with only a few clicks without the need to pause the livestream or to switch websites, so they are more willing to shop. They also interact among themselves by discussing the products, and that sets the mood for shopping.

The livestream is in the centre, customers’ comments on the left and tagged products on the right. Customers can click and buy. (Source: TINY LIVE)

Even staff can benefit from shoppable live

Steve says they have been doing exhibitions at HKCEC the past two Christmases. His staff cannot but leave their families and friends behind. He wants to replace a physical exhibition with a marathon livestream on Christmas Eve, so as to “give Christmas back to the staff”.

Ivy states she will prepare a wide range of products for that, and Steve says dozens of staff members of various styles will be hosts and each of them has their own fan base, making the event even more exciting.

These few years Steve has kept telling his staff to embrace changes. However bad the world has become, life goes on. TINY has managed to find their own way to adapt to every single change it has encountered, be it switching to new products or new ways of selling. Steve has always handled things with ease and never showed any signs of fear. All these explain why TINY is what it is today, after two decades of ups and downs.

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