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Pearl sellers find treasure in livestreams

China Daily| Updated: April 6, 2023 L M S

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A salesman displays a pearl necklace to online customers in Xinchangle village, often called "pearl village", in Shanxiahu township, Zhuji, Zhejiang province. [Photo/China Daily]

Zhejiang merchants' innovative online promotional skills serve as example at home, abroad

China's first group of licensed pearl-selling livestreamers received vocational skill certificates in March from the National Gemstone Testing Center. The 54 licensees are from Zhuji, Zhejiang province.

Pearls that come from freshwater mussels are more affordable than saltwater pearls. They also come in a wider variety of colors and are considered longer lasting.

The township of Shanxiahu in Zhuji, known as the pearl capital of China, is the nation's largest freshwater pearl processing and trading center. It accounts for some 80 percent of China's annual freshwater pearl yields, and in 2022, its pearl transactions exceeded 40 billion yuan ($5.8 billion).

"Zhuji's pearl industry is an important barometer of the freshwater market both domestically and globally. Other Chinese freshwater pearl businesses can learn from its practices in industrial transformation and upgrading," said Ye Zhibin, president of the Gems & Jewelry Trade Association of China, at the 2022 World Pearl Congress in Zhuji.

In recent years, Shanxiahu residents have ditched traditional sales models for digital selling.

"The traders used to buy pearls from farmers on credit, sell them to clients, and then pay their bills. If anything went wrong, farmers couldn't come up with the money," said He Lixin, Party secretary of the village of Xinchangle, often called "pearl village".

Change came with livestreaming platforms.

He remembers watching villagers sell pearls via livestreaming for the first time in 2017. "Welcome to my livestreaming room," a villager said excitedly in front of a mobile phone, with a mussel in one hand and a tool in the other.

Only a few months after the launch of Taobao Live, Alibaba's livestreaming platform, the village's farmers had figured out a new way to sell pearls in the form of "blind boxes" — essentially a game of chance. Customers would spend 30 yuan on a mussel and then farmers would open it as they were livestreaming. Some customers may get lucky and receive a high-quality pearl while others would only get a blemished one.

Since then, the Party secretary has seen the innovative selling method become popular. "In this way, farmers also attracted a group of regular customers," he said. "Once a customer bought 4,000 mussels, and it took a dozen farmers working half a day to open them."

Of more than 800 pearl-raising households in the village, over 300 have been using livestreaming to sell, He said. Some 75 percent of villagers are involved in livestreaming-related jobs. In 2022, two-thirds of the village's total of 6 billion yuan in pearl sales were made through livestreaming.

Over the past six years, many young people have also returned to their homes in Shanxiahu to start pearl businesses.

More than 25,000 residents are involved in the pearl industry and over 3,000 work as livestreamers. Two livestreaming centers of the short-video platform Douyin have been built in the town.

Still, livestreamers have faced challenges as online selling models accelerate the development of the pearl industry.

In 2022, 85 percent of the complaints handled by the Shanxiahu office of Zhuji's market supervision and administration bureau were related to livestreaming.

"A new livestreamer described a necklace as a 'string of saltwater pearls'. But the customer found that it had 11 saltwater pearls and the other 10 were freshwater pearls. The merchant had to pay for the false description," said Tao Xingbin, deputy director of the office.

Tao said that many cases resulted from unclear product descriptions. One livestreamer said a bracelet was made of gold in its entirety, but a short connecting piece was a wire of another metal. The neglected detail would be a cause of customer dissatisfaction.

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Lu Yilei, a livestreamer in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, receives a vocational skill certificate issued by the National Gemstone Testing Center in March. [Photo/China Daily]

To standardize livestreaming activities, Shanxiahu authorities started their research on pearls sold through livestreaming in 2022 and have visited more than 100 livestreaming rooms.

"Selling pearls via livestreaming plays an important role in the development of Shanxiahu's pearl industry. Too many complaints from customers would not only impact online selling, but also damage the brands' credibility, which would definitely hinder the development of the whole industry," said Fang Wuchao, deputy head of Shanxiahu township government.

He Donghui, an executive of Angeperle, a pearl company in Shanxiahu, said livestreamers should be proficient in both knowledge about pearls and advertising laws.

Together with the National Gemstone Testing Center and the Zhejiang Province Pearl Industry Association, local authorities started a course on selling pearls online in the town in February. More than 100 people applied for the course and 57 were admitted. After the training, 54 of them received certificates and became the country's first group of licensed pearl-selling livestreamers.

Deng Shaohua is one of them. "Some customers are more of an expert than we are. It's embarrassing when we cannot answer their questions. That's why all members of my team participate in each training opportunity about pearls."

Yu Jinliang and his girlfriend He Tong have been active in selling pearls using livestreaming for nearly two years and both received certificates.

"As livestreamers, we should have a broad range of knowledge, which is not confined to pearls but includes laws such as those on consumer protection and taxes," Yu said. "The training course covers both theory and practice, such as knowledge about pearls and the details of livestreaming."

Yu Lingjun, Party secretary of Shanxiahu, said: "How well the livestreamers perform has a lot to do with the level of credibility the brands achieve in the market. Thanks to e-commerce and livestreaming, our pearls have become popular across the nation. We believe that the standardization of pearl-selling livestreaming activities will attract more people to the industry and will also make the industry better off in the long run."

People in other nations have also been inspired by Shaxiahu's experiences, especially Xinchangle villagers' promotion of the traditional pearl industry through digital selling.

Stories about Xinchangle village have been compiled into teaching materials used in Mexican colleges, according to Liu Qiang, who is in charge of Alibaba Group's digital economy training program, Global Digital Talent. "We hope teachers and students there will share these experiences with local companies to help them upgrade their industrial sectors with digital technologies."

The electronic World Trade Platform, an initiative started by Alibaba in 2017 to help small businesses and entrepreneurs build globalized businesses through cross-border trade, has a talent program that now operates in more than 15 markets across the world. It helps improve the knowledge of educators who, in turn, pass it along to their students.

Mexico has become the first stop in the Americas for the electronic World Trade Platform program. In February, a delegation of Mexican officials and educators arrived for a one-week visit in Xinchangle.

"It's really good to see firsthand how the Chinese are conducting e-commerce and building all the necessary infrastructure," said Daniel Gonzalez Arroyo, director of the Irapuato State Training Institute in Guanajuato, Mexico. "We want to learn from you and replicate your success in Mexico."