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How TikTok's entry into the e-commerce space is playing out with users

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

For the past few months, whenever I've opened up TikTok, I've been bombarded by ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're doing our winter clearance sale.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This light is the first thing I've bought off TikTok Shop. I don't even want to say I was influenced to buy it. I feel like I was pressured.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello. Girl math here. Shop smarter, OK? Treat yourself.

LIMBONG: The TikTok Shop e-commerce marketplace launched in the U.S. in September. The app is positioning itself to compete with retail giants like Amazon. And with its viral content and huge user base, it might shake up the competition. NPR's Emma Klein has the story.

EMMA KLEIN, BYLINE: In many ways, the TikTok app is perfectly constructed to sell things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hurry up. Purchase now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Super cute, you guys. I love...

KLEIN: TikTok Shop ads are integrated into the entertainment environment. It's estimated that the app has around 80 million active users every month in the U.S., and the average user spends somewhere around 65 to 90 minutes on the app every day. According to the company, over 5 million new users made a purchase on TikTok Shop during the holiday shopping season last year. E-commerce strategist Arelis Caban-Oberst says the power of TikTok is something competitors can't ignore.

ARELIS CABAN-OBERST: Amazon is going to have a competitor like they've never seen before.

KLEIN: With the introduction of TikTok Shop, there's been a sort of gold rush for creators to make a lot of money pushing products.

DEVON RULE: Everyone is an advertiser now.

KLEIN: That's Devon Rule, a creator and retail expert who makes a lot of content about conscious shopping.

RULE: You can definitely see how hard they are pushing for creators to start using TikTok Shop from an affiliate point of view.

KLEIN: She worries that the push from the company to turn creators into sellers and advertisers creates some ethical concerns.

RULE: If you become an advertiser, there's a certain level of responsibility that comes with that. You know, what are you doing by putting your face and likeness promoting that product?

KLEIN: Maya McCormick (ph) is a 19-year-old TikTok creator and student. She's seen firsthand how popular it's becoming to promote products on the platform.

MAYA MCCORMICK: I have a friend who actually started doing TikTok Shop. She posts maybe three seconds of the product and gets 100,000 views in, like, an hour.

KLEIN: The implications of influencer advertising and the ease with which users can make purchases raises some concerns for media researcher Jenny Radesky.

JENNY RADESKY: It gets around some of our cognitive defenses to advertising. You have an advertising message coupled with something that's very pleasurable, rewarding, satisfying, fun, and so it's activating this emotional part of your response to an advertising message.

KLEIN: As the app has faced increased scrutiny in Washington due to it being owned by a Chinese company, they've rolled out ad campaigns with success stories from small business owners. E-commerce strategist Arelis Caban-Oberst again.

CABAN-OBERST: We're seeing a lot of small businesses become multimillion-dollar-revenue-generating businesses what seems to be overnight.

KLEIN: Lana Mechamel (ph) is a business owner who uses TikTok Shop. Her company sells nail and beauty products. She's been selling on her website and on Amazon for over 10 years, but she says selling on TikTok has been life-changing.

LANA MECHAMEL: I have done about $20,000 more than I have on Amazon in the same exact duration of time.

KLEIN: But strict rules for fulfillment have been difficult for many sellers to keep up with. Representatives from TikTok point out that the e-commerce feature is still very new. Sellers do have access to support from the platform and can appeal decisions related to policy violations that they deem unfair. A report published on The Information, a site that covers tech, earlier this month said that the company plans to raise seller fees from 2% to 8% by July. It's likely that many bonuses, like free shipping, will also be rolled back. As subsidies fall away, it's a sign that TikTok feels confident it's here to stay in the e-commerce market.

From NPR News, I'm Emma Klein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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