What’s the deal with TikTok Shop?

TikTok Shop is the app's effort to turn itself into an eCommerce site. And frankly, it sucks.

TikTok is growing rapidly.
Khloe Young-Neawedde

Intern, Don't Sell My Data Campaign

Lately, TikTok has been taken over by the app’s new feature, TikTok Shop. More and more videos on my personalized feed feature an orange “Shop” tag promoting “hot items” at “big discounts”. Every few videos, I watch a fellow TikToker gush over this tote bag. (This specific tote bag. Over and over again.)

TikTok is my place for cute and funny videos, not online shopping. I can physically feel and see the shift of TikTok trying to turn itself into an eCommerce app. And frankly, it sucks. Enough I’ve even thought about deleting the app.

The shift has been so sudden and so jarring that I’ve found myself asking: what is going on?

What is TikTok Shop?

TikTok Shop is a new feature that allows users to buy items they see on TikTok without exiting the app. Clicking on the orange “Shop” tag takes you from a video or TikTok LIVE to an in-app storefront where you can make purchases directly. When you buy something using Shop, the TikToker who created the video you clicked on earns a commission. 

Companies and small businesses can sell their own products through Shop. Separately, individual users select what they promote from a catalog of products listed by third-party companies in an internal marketplace TikTok maintains. Those users request a sample from the seller, and get to making their promotional content.

This is a big change. For one, TikTok’s magical algorithm – so sensitive to your viewing tastes it’s a running joke the app can read your mind – feels totally undermined by an onslaught of weird ads peppered into your feed every few videos.

It’s also a change in how easy it is to spend money on TikTok. Previously, buying something meant clicking a link in a targeted ad or influencer video that took you to the company’s external website. Now, shopping can happen inside the app. TikTok hopes that removing that extra step and giving users “integrated in-app checkout” will “reduce friction in the buyer’s journey”. (Aka, make it as easy as possible for people to spend as much money as possible as fast as possible before their better judgment kicks in.)

Why did TikTok introduce TikTok Shop?

TikTok looks to pivot from being just a social media app to an eCommerce site. It’s a move companies like Instagram tried to pull off, but ultimately failed. TikTok Shop is only the most recent effort by ByteDance to monetize the rapidly growing platform.

As its first business model, TikTok introduced an in-app currency people could purchase to tip their favorite creators. TikTok then began allowing businesses and brands to purchase paid ads in 2019 and has added increasingly sophisticated targeting capabilities since, like introducing the ability to target based on geolocation in 2021.

Data-driven ads remain a growing part of the business model, and more of your data than ever is being sucked into it. TikTok now allows companies to target ads based off info like your age, gender, location, household income, a guess at your “spending power” based on an analysis of your purchases, your mobile phone carrier, your TikTok viewing and engagement history, and even how expensive the smartphone or laptop you’re scrolling on is. 

Now with TikTok Shop, the company’s revenue stream also includes taking a cut from every purchase that happens within the app.

Who makes money off this change?

Companies or small businesses selling their products on the app benefit from the Shop feature, and TikTok itself takes a cut of every sale. 

TikTok Shop also allows a greater number of TikTok users to monetize their accounts. Before Shop, individuals on the platform needed to have 100,000 followers in order to make money off videos through partnerships with companies. TikTok later lowered the follower requirement to 10,000. With Shop, TikTokers with just 5,000 followers can make money selling products on the app. 

Allowing more TikTok creators to make a living off their craft could be a great thing. What’s happening now, however, feels less like economic liberation and more…plain weird.

TikTok Shop is influencer marketing on steroids

Companies in the more-recent social media era have increasingly focused on individuals with big followings as a way to make commercial appeals seem more authentic. Influencer ads seem less like a company trying to convince you their product is superior and more like a regular person telling you about a purchase that made their life better.

As the follower requirement has decreased, more and more “normal” people on TikTok are selling their time making these ads-that-aren’t-supposed-to-look-like-ads. I’ve been seeing the same tote bag, sweatshirt, and miracle cleaning spray promoted video after video from TikToker after TikToker informing me these are “must haves” and a “great deal”.

If I’m supposed to think “wow, everyone loves this thing, I should probably buy it,” it isn’t working. Instead it makes me feel like my feed that used to be filled with funny videos I actually liked has turned into a hollow, commercialized shell of itself with more of my fellow users putting their energy into making crummy videos for crummy products. It’s not the TikTok I signed up for.

Why is everything so cheap on TikTok Shop?

The other weird thing about TikTok Shop is the prices. You often see products for as low as $0.50. How is that possible?

One theory is that TikTok is subsidizing purchases in an effort to get people used to buying stuff on Shop. Another, put forward by Bloomberg, is that a lot of what’s available on Shop is cheap products from China with lots of counterfeits for sale

TikTok Shop has had problems with scams, products that never arrive, and the sale of potentially dangerous items. The app allegedly vets products, but the process has been far from perfect. TikTok ultimately takes no responsibility for the products or sellers on TikTok Shop. 

It also raises the question if one of the more valuable things TikTok gets out of Shop is even more fine-grained data about your shopping habits that might further buoy its targeted advertising business – so much so that it’s worth keeping things super cheap in exchange for better intel about you.

What can I do if I hate this?

The arrival of TikTok Shop videos has disrupted my user experience enough I’ve considered deleting the app. I’m not quite there yet, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to stop Shop from infiltrating my feed so much. So far I’ve found a couple different tactics.

How to stop TikTok Shop

  1. Within “Settings”, go to “Content preferences”. Here you can filter video keywords. I have blocked “tiktokshop”, “eligibleforcommission”, and “commission” from being in the description or hashtags of videos of my ‘For You’ page.
  2. You can flag TikTok Shop videos as “not interested”. To do this, hold down on a video and a tab will come up that will allow you to select a “not interested” options.

These steps have begun to restore my TikTok feed to its better days. I’m seeing fewer videos promoting cheap goods and more of the content I want to see. It has not been perfect, but it’s a start. 

And maybe in some weird way, TikTok Shop’s annoying rollout is actually kind of a good thing. It has become easier for me to put down my phone when I’m so annoyed with ads I don’t even want to look at the app anymore. My screen time has thanked me and in the end, maybe TikTok has done us all a big favor.

Topics
Authors

Khloe Young-Neawedde

Intern, Don't Sell My Data Campaign

R.J. Cross

Director, Don't Sell My Data Campaign, PIRG

R.J. focuses on data privacy issues and the commercialization of personal data in the digital age. Her work ranges from consumer harms like scams and data breaches, to manipulative targeted advertising, to keeping kids safe online. In her work at Frontier Group, she has authored research reports on government transparency, predatory auto lending and consumer debt. Her work has appeared in WIRED magazine, CBS Mornings and USA Today, among other outlets. When she’s not protecting the public interest, she is an avid reader, fiction writer and birder.

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