“One viral video can completely change your life,” said Nateras, whose edgy, tongue-in-cheek designs draw fans and haters alike on the short-form video app.
TikTok unveiled its e-commerce aspirations last year when it started testing tools for businesses of all sizes to sell products right inside the app. Now users say they’re seeing more shopping content on their “For You” pages, including videos with tagged products you can tap to put in your in-app shopping cart.
But the same algorithmic magic dust that catapults a legitimate seller to trending status can also work for scammers, users warn. Some have encountered videos with high view and like counts promoting dubious companies or products. Illicit or dangerous items sometimes find their way into TikTok Shop, according to outside researchers. And small sellers can’t always keep up with the flurry of attention they receive when a video performs particularly well.
TikTok isn’t the only social app to pivot into e-commerce — Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat have also experimented with in-app shopping. But TikTok’s hyper-engaged communities and carefully tailored algorithm are a significant draw for businesses, sellers say. A relatively unknown business can get its videos in front of millions, and one-time buyers often convert into long-term followers.
Shopping on TikTok takes a few different forms. Well-known brands — including Fenty Beauty, PacSun and Stanley — list items in TikTok storefronts where you can shop and check out without leaving the app. Small businesses and creators can also set up shops, as long as they make the products themselves or can prove they’re authorized to resell. And merchants of all sizes can tag products in videos and host live shopping sessions like a modern-day QVC. TikTok takes a small cut of in-app sales, which differs for various sellers.
Some creators use their videos to promote third-party products in exchange for a fee or a cut of sales revenue, known as an affiliate commission. Those creators can team up with brands in a back-end marketplace where companies list products eligible for commission.
It can be tough to tell at a glance which products and sellers are trustworthy, users say.
Becky Entrican, a 23-year-old in Indiana, says she bought a T-shirt from a TikTok seller after a promotional video with 11,000 likes showed up on her “For You” page. That was in February, and the item still hasn’t arrived.
The seller seemed trustworthy, Entrican said — how else could it have gotten all that engagement? But after placing her order, she struggled to get updates on shipping or, eventually, a refund.
“I feel like I’m pretty good at recognizing scams normally,” Entrican said. “But I haven’t bought anything through TikTok since then.”
Scams aren’t the only problem shoppers may encounter. While TikTok shop is blocked entirely for accounts under age 18 (the app doesn’t verify the ages of its users), minors could still encounter potentially dangerous products for sale through the normal search bar. When a Washington Post reporter searched for the term “buy diet pills” using an account set for a 14-year-old, the first search result led to a profile containing a link to a third-party site claiming to sell phentermine, a prescription weight-loss medicine.
TikTok spokesman Misha Rindisbacher said that TikTok Shop doesn’t allow the sale or advertisement of diet pills and that the company removes any content violating its rules.
Media Matters for America, a left-leaning nonprofit organization that monitors false information online, found that diet pills and even at-home “lipo injections” in TikTok Shop, even though the sale of weight-control products is supposed to be banned per the app’s terms, according to a report Media Matters released last week.
To find the products, Media Matters senior investigative researcher Olivia Little slightly modified the spelling of her search terms. The sellers themselves, however, hadn’t taken any obvious steps to disguise the products or dodge TikTok’s oversight — a sign that the app isn’t doing enough to keep illicit items out of its shop, Little said.
“These sellers are supposed to be vetted, and there was supposed to be an approval process,” she said. “So it’s one of two things: Either TikTok doesn’t care, or that its vetting process is negligent. And either way, it’s putting users at risk of potential harm.”
TikTok’s Rindisbacher said the company uses a combination of computer and human moderation to review items when they’re listed for sale.
Tips for safe shopping on TikTok
If you’re considering buying something through TikTok Shop, check other sites such as Etsy, Shopify and Amazon to see if the seller has an established presence and positive reviews. Read the seller’s reviews in TikTok Shop rather than relying on follower counts or comment sections, as only verified buyers who bought the item through TikTok and received their shipment can leave an official review.
So far, TikTok’s review system is difficult for sellers to manipulate, said Alesha Gay, a small-business owner who sells fragrance oils on the app. Once customers have interacted with a product listing, the seller can’t change the image or description — a practice that has helped Amazon scammers falsely inflate product reviews.
The app’s algorithm, however, is a different story. Gay said she’s careful to notice which videos perform best and repeat their format. Recently, some of her videos have received so many views that she had to unlist the items because she couldn’t keep up with orders.
“I think I figured out the formula,” she said. “You have to be controversial — TikTok loves controversy. TikTok is going to push informative videos, and it’s going to push new products that they’re trying to get in front of people.”
As the app appears to fill users’ feeds with more shopping content, sellers stand to benefit. Gay, for instance, said she has a presence on Instagram but puts less energy into the Meta-owned app because “TikTok is what pays the bills.”
Users, meanwhile, should stay vigilant, Little of Media Matters said. In failing to take down what she saw as glaring violations of its shop policies, TikTok has raised doubts on its ability to moderate an e-commerce platform.
“If [TikTok Shop is] trying to rapidly expand without carefully vetting products and prioritizing user safety, it’s just going to be a nightmare for everyone,” Little said.