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Retail’s TikTok to Brick and Mortar Pipeline

Retail is constantly evolving to reflect the needs and trends of potential customers. Increasingly those trends are starting on social media. The hot new social media platform TikTok is giving creators of all types the chance to reach large audiences. Enterprising social media stars with growing followings are turning to brick and mortar, not e-commerce, to tap into the market their fans are creating. 

Given enough popularity, social media inevitably turns into social commerce as advertisers monetize attention spans. Instagram’s popularity among brands and creators is distinctly tied to how the platform allows each to monetize their followers, using swipes that take you directly to an online store. Instagram is far from alone: Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, and Snapchat all make it easy to open your followers’ wallets through online stores, subscriptions, and other offerings. Relatively late to the social media game, TikTok has taken a different tact towards creators’ commercialization. 

What started as product videos have morphed into an entire shopping category. Some of TikTok’s biggest accounts review products. From cosmetics to clothing, toys to tech, cleaning products to candles, the app is full of reaction videos, unboxings, and reviews; #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt is one of the app’s most popular hashtags. The trend has grown so large that the world’s biggest retailer, Amazon, now has an entire product page titled “the latest to go viral.” In October, TikTok debuted TikTok Shopping, a new feature in the app itself that aims to make selling things to followers easier by building out an in-app store, similar to Instagram Shopping. Some of the most popular TikTok users are going a step further, leaving the relative ease of online and in-app shopping to explore the world of physical retail. 

Twenty-five-year-old Dylan Lemay has nearly 11 million followers on TikTok who love to watch him scoop, flip, and mix ice cream. Throwing perfectly round ice cream scoops to customers has become his social media calling card. Lemay started as a Cold Stone Creamery Manager, uploading his first video in December 2020, building his massive follower count in less than 12 months. Lemay has since moved on from Cold Stone, traveling the country “live’n the dream, catch’n the cream” at various ice cream shops. The next stop on his meteoric rise is his own brick and mortar ice cream parlor franchise. 

“You’ve completely changed my life, and now I get to create the perfect ice cream place for all of us,” Lemay told his followers on the announcement video posted to TikTok. 

The video announcing the name of Lemay’s ice cream shop uploaded just a week ago already has nearly 30 million views. Flush with $1.5 million in funding thanks to well-known finance guru Chris Camillo and others, Lemay is working to launch his immersive and experiential ice cream store in New York in Spring 2022. Located in NoHo, the store plans to be more than an ice cream shop, creating a “full 360-degree ice cream experience.” Yet to be revealed digital aspects to the store will create an immersive retail experience. The interactive nature of the location will be coupled with regular collaborations with other creators and celebrities, some of which are already investors. 

Part of TikTok’s success is its anarchic nature. Instagram’s concerted efforts to build out the shopping and brand experience have turned the app into a sterile mall for many users, each account neatly packaged. TikTok is messier and far less serious. The filtered and manufactured feel of much of Instagram creates a different, more tailored experience than TikTok’s semi-random swiping that could lead you anywhere. Breaking into someone’s Instagram bubble is hard without ad dollars but TikTok’s For You page is well-known for dropping users down rabbit holes they never even considered. 

This summer one of London’s biggest malls dedicated 4,000 square feet to TikTok in hopes of bringing customers back. The For You House highlighted trends on the platform, giving visitors an opportunity to experience viral videos themselves. The Kitch showcased popular recipes on the app. The Dressing Room featured beauty and fashion challenges. The Garden allowed guests to try sports tricks and dance to routines. 

”The experience of video and retail are becoming increasingly intertwined and to be able to bring TikTok to life together with Westfield London was a challenge that our team relished,” TikTok fashion and retail brand partnerships manager Holly Harrison told The Drum.

Emma Rogue, a Gen-Z fashion influencer, opened her shop Rogue on New York’s ‘TikTok Block’ this summer, next door to Bowery Showroom from fellow influencer Matt Choon. It’s no coincidence the stores are close, the influencers worked together to make it so. 

“I was just seeing how much traffic was coming through the doors when promoting my friends,” Rogue said in an interview. “I had to ask myself, why do I keep promoting other people? I should be promoting my own space.” 

TikTok creators reaching escape velocity from the app into the world of physical retail is still rare. Opening brick and mortar locations is hard. As Rogue mentioned, it’s far easier for established physical retailers to leverage TikTok than for TikTok stars to leverage physical retail. With more than 1 billion monthly users and more hours of video watched than all of YouTube, the app is an opportunity struggling physical retailers are rushing to grasp. Other social media apps present a similar opportunity, but none have been able to drive customers into stores quite like TikTok. 

The app is even helping downtrodden brick and mortar bookstores. Canada’s largest bookseller, Indigo Books and Music, specifically mentioned TikTok in its quarterly earnings report, saying the app can generate a “new demand lifecycle.” Trader Joe’s, Ulta, Barnes & Noble, and other major physical retailers have added some version of As Seen On TikTok sections to their locations. Walmart saw so much potential in TikTok it’s reportedly interested in buying the whole company. It all comes down to TikTok’s mysterious algorithm that creates the magic. 

“The TikTok algorithm is really insane, there’s nothing like it,” Rogue said. “With geolocation, you can touch so many people in a centralized area.”

TikTok’s algorithm is a closely kept secret but the company has shed some light on how it works. No two users ever see the same videos in the same order. User interactions are key. The more interactions a video has the more likely it will be shared. Because the For You page most commonly scrolled by users is only partially based on who the user actually follows, it’s common to see videos from parts of the app you didn’t know existed, helping the best content go viral faster than ever before. Duplicate videos are a no-no. Recommendations aren’t based on follower count or previous success, keeping content fresh and high quality. TikTok says “bringing a diversity of videos into your For You feed gives you additional opportunities to stumble upon new content categories, discover new creators, and experience new perspectives.” It’s precisely that magic that has content creators and influencers seeing a greater return on investment from their time using that app than any other. 

TikTok is short-circuiting the retail phenomenon that pushes trends from the internet into stores. One app is creating the trends, spreading the trends, and directing users on where to purchase the trends. It’s all happening so quickly even the people tapping into it don’t quite understand the success of the model. TikTok is more than 5 years old but didn’t explode in popularity until 2020 when monthly user counts doubled from 500 million to over a billion. Most of the biggest accounts didn’t exist 12 months ago. The Chinese-owned app is seeing so much success so rapidly that major underlying problems are being tossed to the wayside. Privacy lawsuits related to the app’s collection of children’s biometric data piled up but most have been settled. The app’s algorithm spread tragic videos and misinformation like wildfire in the wake of the deadly Astroworld crowd crush, an issue TikTok has promised to address. Still, those problems seem quaint when you consider the serious issue and allegations other social media apps are facing. 

TikTok is an app for discovery, not just for following the things, people, and brands you already like. That unique potential allows creators and businesses to reach larger audiences and more customers. The app is only beginning to understand and leverage the many monetization opportunities before it. Finally, retailers have an omnichannel tool that can drive customers to physical stores, not just online shops.

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