Social & Influencers

Why does TikTok Shop look like that?

Many brands are hesitant to be near “potential knockoffs or inappropriate products,” one agency exec said.
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Illustration: Morning Brew, Photo: TikTok

· 7 min read

In 2023, TikTok officially opened the doors of TikTok Shop in the US, a marketplace that many industry onlookers said could rival e-commerce juggernaut Amazon. TikTok had already built an ad business reportedly worth close to $20 billion in a little over five years, reaching 1 billion monthly active users globally last summer. If people are using the platform, why not sell them stuff?

Nearly four months after the unveiling of its US marketplace, TikTok Shop is selling…something. If it’s the future of digital commerce, though, it might leave something to be desired.

When TikTok Shop debuted in the US, Bloomberg described it as an “Amazon copycat” full of “cheap Chinese goods.” Over the holiday shopping season, Marketing Brew found random gizmos and crass gag gifts galore available on TikTok’s marketplace, including:

  • A clear ornament filled with green confetti labeled “Grinch Pubes” ($7)
  • A pin of a cartoon ghost with breasts saying “booobs” ($.91)
  • A blanket that looks like a giant tortilla ($15.99–$27.99)
  • A phone case shaped like a frying pan ($6.99–$10.89) and a planter shaped like a butt ($15.95)
  • A Carhartt beanie sold by someone other than Carhartt ($0.01)
  • A T-shirt that reads “I got pegged at Cracker Barrel” ($16.99–$23.99)

Several other items we spotted are too risqué to print, but would probably make you blush—or at least trigger some brand safety and suitability concerns. And well-known brands aren’t yet appearing in large numbers on TikTok Shop, save for a “featured brands” section that contains items from companies like PacSun and Scrub Daddy.

We’re not just clutching our pearls: TikTok Shop’s policy prohibits things like “sexually suggestive items,” counterfeits, and “any products which violate the intellectual property or proprietary right of a third party.” None of the products listed above were found to be in violation of the platform’s policies, the company confirmed to Marketing Brew.

Advertisers are flocking to TikTok’s larger platform, though, with in-feed ads for Walmart, Amazon, Madewell, Bulgari, and McDonald’s appearing during Marketing Brew’s review of TikTok Shop.

Media buyers told Marketing Brew that the platform still faces hurdles pitching its social commerce offering, citing brand suitability, a lack of need, and complex supply issues.

“I think your feed is probably a good representation of how much interest there is today,” Kieley Taylor, global head of partnerships at GroupM, told Marketing Brew.

“We’re not really reliant upon being in that Shop tab in order to drive sales on behalf of advertisers,” she added.

For you, or for…someone

Buying stuff on TikTok is a cornerstone of the company’s ambitions. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, was looking to expand its global e-commerce sales from $4.4 billion in 2022 to $20 billion in 2023, with the US and European markets representing just a slim portion of total sales, Bloomberg reported.

To help support that growth, TikTok has rolled out several advertising and shopping tools that let users purchase products directly within the app, whether it’s during livestreams, in the main feed, in a promoted video, or directly in TikTok’s Shop tab, dubbed the Shopping Center.

The Shop tab is algorithmically driven, based on a user’s interests or trends on the platform, much like the app’s For You page. To be featured under the Shop tab, merchants must submit documentation and sign up for TikTok Seller Central. Once merchants are enrolled, they have access to TikTok’s suite of e-commerce tools, but they can’t opt-out of having their products show up under the Shop tab.

Last April, TikTok was reportedly struggling to find US retailers and merchants interested in selling goods on the platform, according to The Information, and fewer than 100 US merchants had signed up to be on the platform as of March of last year. As of mid-December, TikTok Shop had more than 200,000 merchants in the US, TikTok spokesperson Misha Rindisbacher told Marketing Brew, the same amount the company cited to TechCrunch at the time of the shop’s debut.

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Jennifer Quigley-Jones, CEO and founder of the agency Digital Voices, said the number of merchants doesn’t necessarily translate to quality.

“There’s so much pressure to make it work and to onboard partners, [TikTok is] not necessarily thinking about premium, quality placements,” she said. “Brands don’t want to be associated with all these potential knockoffs or inappropriate products.”

The Shop tab has earned a reputation as more of a “sales and coupon and deal-based environment,” JuHee Kim, president of the agency MuteSix, said.

“If you look at it from a brand perspective, and you care about your brand value and the environment you’re in, you’re not going to want to be in that marketplace. That experience is not good,” Kim said.


The environment on TikTok Shop observed by Marketing Brew may be due in part to the platform’s “bottom-up” strategy, Gillian Collison, global director of social platforms at GroupM, explained. Many sellers first came to the platform through the company’s integration with Shopify, although TikTok has since discontinued parts of that integration.

"You will see the bulk of those advertisers today are small businesses or enterprises that can move fast because they’re connected [through Shopify],” Collison explained.

Heavily discounted products are more likely to be featured, Quigley-Jones said.

“Brands that want to be premium and don’t want to drop on price—and don’t want to alienate existing customers by dropping on price—are very reluctant to be positioned against that type of content, or even knockoffs of their own product,” Quigley-Jones said.

A year from now, she said she hopes that TikTok finds ways to connect creators and products, or at least an easier way to watch video content about and reviews of individual products.

If it doesn’t, she said, “I think it could become a very short-lived, trashy discount tab that no one wants to use.”

More hats, more challenges

TikTok Shop’s perception problem is compounded by the complexity of social commerce, a relatively new and burgeoning space, especially in the US, Mike Feldman, SVP and head of commerce and retail media at Dentsu, explained.

Most organizations aren’t necessarily organized to buy social commerce, and because creative, media, and commerce are often three different departments they may also have their own sets of metrics, incentives, and budgets. At smaller brands, where employees tend to wear more hats, that may not be as pronounced, he said.

In some ways, brands’ hesitancy around TikTok Shop is similar to earlier attitudes about advertising on Amazon, Feldman said, noting that, when he first started in retail media, “there weren’t enough sales on Amazon to justify having an Amazon-specific media spend.”

“You’re essentially asking people to make bets on the long-term promise, but it doesn’t necessarily line up with how you would typically fund something based on similar opportunities,” he said. And the items for sale that Marketing Brew spotted don’t necessarily represent the platform’s “long-term aspirations,” he added.

Ultimately, some advertisers could help the platform mature through feedback; it’s a matter of when bigger brands are willing to make the leap.

“Someone needs the FOMO. Someone needs to see what they’re missing,” Feldman said. “It’s the Spider-Man meme. Everyone’s looking at each other waiting for someone to jump in.”

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