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Can’t Wait for the Ads? Tune in to Shoppable TV

Companies Expand Ways to Encourage Consumers to Buy as They Watch

By Pablo Suarez

Illustration of someone buying handbags via "shoppable" TV

"Shoppable TV" enables viewers to instantly react to a situation or product on screen, locate it—perhaps using a QR code—and make a purchase.

Illustration by Shutterstock

In the mood to indulge in some retail therapy on this Cyber Monday? Take a seat on the couch.

“Shoppable TV” allows viewers watching their favorite shows to easily buy the products they see, whether a mixer shown on the "Great British Baking Show" or shade of lipstick worn by an actress. And media companies are making that purchase process easier than ever.

Following NBCUniversal’s 2019 launch of a shoppable TV platform to promote merchandise on its programming, this month Discovery added shoppable ads on its streaming services, while YouTube started selling merchandise directly on its platform through holiday-themed livestreams hosted by social media and TV stars. Google is also exploring how to have YouTube users follow a URL at the bottom of their screen to a brand’s website and continue shopping on another device without interrupting their viewing session.

Just last month, a University of Maryland graduate was featured on USA Network’s new shoppable TV series, “America’s Big Deal,” in which entrepreneurial contestants win funding by making the biggest sales during the show’s live airing.

According to Bo “Bobby” Zhou, an associate marketing professor at UMD’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, shoppable TV has lot of potential. It enables viewers to instantly react to a situation or product on screen, compared to current options like YouTube’s URL integration or QR codes at the bottom of the TV screen for consumers to scan, both of which can be time-consuming and fail to capitalize on an impulse to make purchase.

“Selling products via shoppable TV offers a deeply personalized purchase experience. Consumers may feel more connected to a brand/product because their favorite TV characters are actively using these products,” said Zhou. “Products that are already well-known in terms of brand awareness, but lack the final push to conversion, like cosmetic products, will be a great fit.”

He said companies need to recognize which products might be best suited for this medium and determine the type of content that aligns with their image. There should also be consideration of what constitutes TV watching for different audiences, he said. Understanding the fragmentation of audience content consumption between those who watch on handheld devices, big-screen televisions and sometimes even smart speakers with screens (like Amazon’s Echo Show) will help advertisers develop more optimized shoppable TV strategies.

This new format, Zhou said, isn’t intended to phase out other television advertising. According to a survey, 92% of respondents in a survey preferred shoppable TV to traditional advertising. The goal, he said, shouldn’t be to create competing advertising methods, but to build on them.

“Shoppable TV targets consumers at the last stage in their shopping journey right before purchase. It doesn’t replace traditional TV or radio ads, which focus on raising brand and product awareness,” said Zhou. “Having a clear objective—whether that be increased promotion or improved conversion—is very important.”

The pandemic revealed wide interest in shopping online at home, so there is an appetite for these ads.

“With the potential improvement of virtual reality headsets and smart glasses, transaction times could very well continue to decrease,” said Zhou. “That, coupled with more tech-savvy younger consumers, means shoppable TV has a bright future ahead.”

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