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TikTok’s new Amazon copycat is full of cheap Chinese goods

LOS ANGELES – TikTok’s Shop marketplace, the video app’s biggest bet for new revenue growth, has gone live for some users in the United States. So far, it is a showcase for cheap goods from China.

The social media app’s Shop option, prominently displayed between the For You and Following feeds where users watch videos, presents a never-ending scroll of “recommended” random products, according to an early version reviewed by Bloomberg, including a US$2.99 (S$4.10) Nike sweatshirt that appears counterfeit.

Many of the listings say they are shipped from China, where TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is based.

That could reignite US regulatory concerns if it puts user data in the hands of Chinese sellers.

TikTok Shop will be competing with to sell a target of US$20 billion of merchandise in 2023, Bloomberg has reported.

The effort has been discussed internally as a “community commerce” effort, according to people familiar with the matter, meaning it is meant to capitalise on the app’s potential to bring people together through their niche interests.

But the early version of the experience shows no evidence of the ultra-personalised algorithm TikTok is known for in its video feed, which has been key to its success in capturing users’ attention.

Instead, TikTok Shop is plagued by the same problems with a free-for-all marketplace that Amazon has faced.

Categories and sub-categories of products are filled with overwhelming choice: The Home & Kitchen section shows a 37 US cent mini-car rubbish bin next to a US$16 1.2m computer desk and a US$8.43 three-piece polyester satin sheet set.

Misspelled brand names and implausible prices on many of the listings raise red flags for potential counterfeit sales.

TikTok said the article is “misleading” and that it does not “represent the TikTok experience”.

The marketplace highlights prices – which are remarkably low and listed in large font. Coupons and free shipping offers are highlighted in red and green, respectively.

TikTok creates a sense of urgency by listing next to a product how many times it has been sold and a countdown clock with the hours, minutes and seconds left of a sale. 

No brands are listed before clicking on a product.

Most of the product names seem more tailored to search engines and algorithms than human shoppers.

One listing, for instance, touts “Women’s 3 Piece High Waist Workout Shorts Butt Lifting Tummy Control Ruched Butt Smile Yoga Short Pants”.

The most prominent section is for “Today’s Deals”.

On the feed seen by Bloomberg, the top promoted product was a snail mucin-based face serum which has recently gone viral on the app: the Cosrx brand Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence. 

The seller, listed as FIFTHLINYOUNG-4, advertised the serum for US$7.99, down from US$39, but neither number aligns with the US$25 price the brand Cosrx offers on its website.

The TikTok seller says the product is manufactured in China, when Cosrx products say on the packaging that they are made in South Korea.

“Dear, yes, it is genuine,” the seller said in a message on TikTok. “The new store is offering discounts during events.”

The seller did not respond to questions about why the product says it is manufactured in China.

Cosrx did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Even in testing, there are over 200,000 verified US merchants on TikTok Shop selling legitimate products, including over 150,000 beauty products that have been validated through our process and represent some of the biggest names in the beauty business,” a TikTok spokesman said.

In June, a person familiar with the company’s US Shop strategy said the firm was focusing on American sellers.

That strategy appears to have changed.

A quick search reveals a number of Chinese brands on TikTok Shop that Amazon has kicked off its platform for faking customer reviews.

Guangdong Saca Precision Manufacturing was booted from the e-commerce giant in June 2021.

Products from its brands Taotronics and Vava are currently available on TikTok.

So is the hot-selling headset brand Mpow, whose parent Shenzhen Qianhai Patuoxun Network & Technology was also removed from Amazon.

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In its terms that a user can click on before checkout, TikTok says: “We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that any content on TikTok Shop is accurate, complete or up to date. We have no visibility or control over the contents on or available through those sites or resources and you acknowledge and agree that we have no liability for any such content.” 

When a user checks out from the Shop tab, purchases from multiple sellers can be made at the same time in the same checkout.

TikTok is processing payments through its app, Bloomberg has reported, meaning the company will also be collecting additional information about users, including card details, as well as billing and shipping addresses.

That may eventually lead to extra regulatory scrutiny for the company.

TikTok has been under pressure from US federal, state and local governments over its data privacy practices.

The app’s Chinese ownership has sparked national security concerns over whether Americans can be tracked or influenced on the app.

The company has said it is working to isolate sensitive data from its American users so that only staff in the US can access it through a separate unit called USDS.

“TikTok US protected user data is stored in the US and managed by USDS, and we work with third-party payment platforms to facilitate transactions on TikTok Shop, with all data managed by the payment partner,” a company spokesman said.

Lawmakers have been particularly sensitive to whether the app collects location data on users.

Prior to the launch of Shop, the company said it updated its app so it no longer collects precise or approximate GPS data, only approximate location information. 

But Shop appears to open up some user data to its sellers.

In TikTok’s Buyer Policy, the company says that “sellers are independent controllers of the data that they collect about you via TikTok Shop, and TikTok is not responsible for their compliance with applicable law”. BLOOMBERG

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