Who Is the TikTok Shopper?


When selling on TikTok Shop, Puneet Nanda, the founder of GuruNanda, the brand behind the platform’s best-selling product — a $15 oral pulling oil, which touts debated health benefits like healthier gums and whiter teeth — has a very specific person in mind.

“Her name is Maria. She’s 42 years old. She’s either a single mom with two kids or she has a couple of pets … She has been neglected, she’s been put off as a dumb person, people have thought of her as a nobody,” said Nanda.

The imaginary 42-year-old Maria may not be the first person that most people would associate with TikTok, widely known as a platform teeming with Gen-Z users. But Nanda, it seems, is on to something: GuruNanda has sold 1.4 million bottles of Cocomint Pulling Oil on TikTok Shop since the platform’s launch in September, more than the total number of products sold by TikTok favourite brands Rare Beauty and Tarte Cosmetics.

Since TikTok Shop’s roll out last year, it has quickly become a player in the crowded e-commerce space, despite backlash that it hurt user experience on the app, filling feeds with ads. According to TikTok, 5 million people made purchases on the platform during Black Friday and Cyber Monday. By February, the Shop had the same number of active users as Shein — and even began taking wallet share from the fast fashion behemoth, according to Earnest Analytics’ analysis of credit card data.

But which brands — and shoppers — are driving the fast rise is difficult to decipher. Because TikTok Shop is still in its infancy, there’s no historical data. The platform’s highly personalised feed makes it near impossible for users to compare notes on their experiences and walk away with a cohesive narrative of what’s going on. Plus, there’s the sheer amount of money TikTok is spending to get people on board: The Information reported TikTok Shop was on track to lose more than $500 million in 2023.

TikTok’s future in the US may be uncertain — this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would force a break up with Chinese owner Bytedance or ban the app in the country if signed into law — but understanding the TikTok shopper is still important for fashion. Nine percent of US households made purchases on TikTok Shop in 2023, according to Earnest Analytics — meaning it’s a lot more than the stereotypical TikTok user that brands can reach on the platform.

“[TikTok Shop] has reached a very impressive amount of consumers in a short amount of time,” said Michael Maloof, Earnest Analytics head of marketing and strategy.

Big Spenders

Gen-Z may have been the generation that put TikTok on the map during the pandemic, but they’re hardly the only people on the platform today — in particular, on TikTok Shop.

“When people think of TikTok they think it’s a laser focus on Gen-Z. What we’re also seeing is their parents are also loving the platform and our products,” said Ashley Murphy, Rare Beauty’s vice president of consumer marketing.

Since September, TikTok’s favourability among Gen-Z has fallen 7 points, according to brand intelligence firm Morning Consult. In fact, it’s sales among Millennials and Gen-X, who have more spending power than younger shoppers, that are growing the fastest on TikTok Shop. In February, people aged 25 to 34 and 45 to 54 accounted for 25 percent and 22 percent of sales, respectively, while eighteen to 24 year-olds made up just 7 percent of spending, according to Earnest Analytics.

TikTok Shop resonates most with the average, middle-income millennial, who makes between $50,000 and $90,000, and shops at retailers including Amazon, Etsy and Old Navy.

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Caitlin Tetrault, “momingthisshiz,” a 39-year-old Florida-based seller of home goods, toys, beauty and fashion, earns commission on TikTok Shop sales promoting products largely from companies that reach out to her. She says she has raked in $150,000 a month since quitting her full-time job in December. Most of her buyers are around her age and older, the algorithm is good at funnelling her consumers who are like her.

“Every TikTok Shop person has their own audience … There are always people living the same life [as you] and they resonate,” said Tetrault, whose top-selling clothing item is a jumpsuit from fast fashion brand Cider.

TikTok Shop’s “very drop-shippy and very scammy” feel so far has kept Sammy Palazzolo, a 19-year-old creator and college student from being too tempted to make purchases on the app, with a few exceptions. Palazzolo doesn’t know anyone in “real life,” (outside influencers) who has purchased from the Shop.

Still, some brands have managed to use TikTok Shop to connect with Gen-Z and beyond. The Shop has been helpful in pushing Rare’s first fragrance to creators on “perfume Tok,” said Murphy. Pacsun’s low-rise baggy jeans are viral among Gen-Zers: the hashtag #pacsunlowrisejeans has 7 million views, and 15,100 pairs have been sold since September.

“We are not able to keep up with inventory right now, and we continue to sell out. It just keeps growing,” said Addie Rintel, vice president of women’s merchandising and design at Pacsun.

Anyone with 5,000 followers can purchase the jeans to promote for commission at a varying discount, determined by TikTok, through The Shop. That has put Pacsun in the hands of consumers it wouldn’t have found with a targeted approach, said Rintel. Over 80 percent of shoppers come from its affiliate community’s posts. Rare Beauty seeds products based on who is generating attention, which has widened the gamut of Rare spokespeople.

What People Purchase

It’s tricky to predict what will sell well on the app, said Pacsun’s Rintel. Jeans, for example, are popular but denim shorts aren’t. The retailer has had trouble keeping a $10 green, buckled sandal in stock. It’s also hard to tell what is naturally bubbling to the surface.

“[TikTok] is trying to grow this, they’re putting a lot of money behind it. How many of our videos are being boosted by TikTok? How much are they helping drive this current revenue for us?” said Rintel.

Unbranded, dubiously-sourced products make up a sizable chunk of sales on the app. Questions about the legitimacy of products from Sol de Janeiro to GuruNanda float through the For You Page. Many of Tretault’s products are sourced from overseas sellers, she said. Her 17-year-old stepdaughter has only made one purchase on the app: a discounted Stanley cup, which Tetrault “didn’t have the heart to tell her was probably counterfeit.”

The Shop is dominated by flash sales. The average consumer spends $35, and makes around one transaction a month; it’s primarily driving impulse purchases, said Maloof.

Jessica Barrett, an assistant editor at Grazia, has bought a few things on sale: “You’re lying there on TikTok and you’re like ‘I don’t need this stuff,’ then you’re like, ‘maybe I do.’ And you get a dopamine rush.”

But brands with name recognition, like Rare Beauty, have been able to move products at full price, said Murphy. The brand has done just one promotion of its own, 50 percent off mascara for national lash day.

TikTok Shop’s retention rate is surprisingly high, said Maloof: 50 percent of shoppers came back for another purchase in the six to nine month period following their first. For comparison, in the same period Temu saw a 41 percent retention rate, while Shein’s was around 20 percent. But sales growth has plateaued since November, according to Earnest Analytics.

“It makes me wonder whether TikTok Shop didn’t reach everyone it was going to reach with that tool pretty quickly …” said Maloof. “I don’t see how it grows from here.”

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