Whenever Lu Yanfei wants to eat American fast food, she opens Douyin, China’s TikTok, and switches to the livestreaming channel of McDonald’s China. Onscreen, a fast-talking host hawks fries, sundaes, and chicken sandwiches to hundreds of viewers at a time. “How many babes want to eat this?” a young woman with pigtails asked enthusiastically during a show in April, while waving a plastic model of a vanilla ice cream cone. “Number one link, ice cream for 0.01 yuan, five, four, three, two, one.” 

Lu, a 21-year-old student in Shenzhen, always finds something she wants — a two-person meal for 35.5 Chinese yuan ($5.4), a fried drumstick plus a Coke for 9.9 yuan ($1.5), or medium fries for 0.5 yuan (8 cents). Discount coupons are released throughout the livestreams as limited time offers, and Lu needs to press the purchase button fast if she wants the best deals. “The discounts are so awesome,” she told Rest of World. “It’s worth the effort.” 

The coupons Lu buys are saved in the Douyin app, and she can redeem them over the counter at most McDonald’s stores in China. If she doesn’t end up using them, the money is refunded. 

By combining social media and infomercial sales tactics, livestream retail has grown into a $100 billion industry in China during the pandemic. On shopping and social apps, fast-talking hosts pitch their sales around the clock, while buyers interact with them and place orders with a few taps on their phones. By the end of 2021, 464 million users were shopping during livestreams, a 20% increase from a year ago. McKinsey estimates 10% of all e-commerce revenue comes via livestreaming in China.

KFC made its earliest livestreaming attempt in 2019, when it partnered with China’s then-livestreaming queen Viya to sell some 30,000 discounted burger coupons. Since then, major restaurant chains like McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut have all launched their own livestreaming channels, each attracting millions of followers on platforms like Taobao and Douyin. During their daily livestreams, which last as long as 13 hours, hosts use all kinds of tricks to grab people’s attention: having company executives or pop stars eat fried chicken on camera, addressing viewers as “babes,” and placing time limits to create a sense of fierce competition.

464 million The number of people who shopped on livestream in China in 2021.

Source: China Internet Network Information Center

Some even have virtual hosts running the show during off-peak hours. KFC’s “little cutie,” a female character in a traditional Chinese-style red dress, greets viewers by their usernames in her robotic voice. When someone places an order, she performs a dance. “Does everyone like the little host’s dance?” she said afterwards. “Now, I’ll continue introducing these chicken ribs.”

These daily livestreams have become a significant revenue driver for fast-food chains. 

An employee at a McDonald’s branch in Shanghai, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said about 20% of their orders came from livestream coupons. 

Other food and beverage companies in China, including coffee shops, bakeries, and hotpot chains, have adopted livestreaming to boost their popularity. Because of the challenges of getting hot food to customers quickly, the effectiveness of restaurant livestreaming depends on having a strong network of brick-and-mortar shops that customers can visit themselves to redeem their coupons.

As well as increasing sales, livestreaming is a cheap way for brands to promote themselves. Ashley Dudarenok, a China marketing expert who works at digital marketing agencies Alarice and ChoZan, said the high turnover and the reduced marketing costs allow companies to offer heavy discounts. “There are also fast-food brands and restaurants that introduce their dishes, present how safe their ingredients are, and how clean their kitchen is on the streams,” she said. “This gives the consumers an opportunity to gain more knowledge about the restaurant and likely build up trust before they even visit the offline store.”

For fast-food lovers, watching someone talking about burgers from their mobile phone late at night could just be more enticing than reading the menu in a physical store. A 16-year-old consumer in the southeastern province of Fujian, who only gave her surname Zhou, bought a chicken burger meal when she saw a KFC livestream on Douyin for the first time in January. She had it for lunch the next day at a store nearby. “It felt nice to have something to look forward to,” she told Rest of World.