Influencers could be TikTok’s secret weapon in e-commerce. They could also be its downfall.

  • TikTok creators have been pitching apparent knockoffs of products from Apple, Lululemon, and Crocs.
  • Influencers earn a commission on product sales they drive through TikTok Shop.
  • Misleading videos could supplant fake reviews as the next big challenge for e-commerce platforms.

Can you get an Apple Watch Ultra for $34.88 on TikTok?

That’s the incredible offer TikTok creator Austin Tyler teased to his millions of followers in a late October video seen by Insider.

“Just got my new Apple Watch Ultra, but instead of paying $800, you guys know I had to get it from the TikTok Shop for that deal, man,” he said in the now-deleted video.

Tyler’s post included a link to a $34.88 smartwatch available on TikTok Shop from a seller called MoonMates, who did not claim the item was made by Apple. Tyler was probably eligible for a commission on any watch sales his video generated because it featured a TikTok Shop tag. He did not respond to an inquiry from Insider.

Other creators have also presented knockoff watches as Apple products. In November, a TikToker going by the handle @jennyselectionofficial posted a video touting “the most insane flash sale” for a separate “viral TikTok Apple Watch” available from a different seller for $8.55. Apple did not respond to a request for comment from Insider.

As TikTok makes a splashy foray into e-commerce, one of its key advantages over incumbents such as Amazon is its existing network of influencers who can help sell products through its app. TikTok announced in September that it had over 100,000 registered creators sharing products through its Shop affiliate program, which pays influencers a commission on sales generated by their videos.

However, relying on creators to sell products presents two significant challenges: they are not always honest and do not always understand what they are selling.

Some creators may misrepresent a product in order to make it appear better than it is in order to increase commission earnings. Others may do it unintentionally because they are unsure whether a heavily discounted TikTok Shop product is genuine.

If false video reviews proliferate on TikTok Shop, the nascent e-commerce platform may face extinction.

“If consumers have bad experiences by buying these products that turn out to be counterfeits or low quality, they’re going to lose faith in influencer recommendations and stop making purchases through that system,” said Brett Hollenbeck, an associate professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who studies online marketplaces and coauthored an October 2022 paper titled “The Market for Fake Reviews.”

“If TikTok loses control over this and there’s a lot of bad actors, then it’s going to in the long run hurt their ability to have a successful e-commerce operation,” Hollenbeck said in a statement.

According to a TikTok spokesperson, misrepresenting products is a clear violation of TikTok Shop policies. Its policy prohibits creators from posting videos promoting or advertising a specific product that differs from the actual product, including “false claims that a product is affiliated with other products.”

TikTok stated that it enforces its policies through a combination of technology and manual moderation, including monitoring negative reviews and complaint rates. They also stated that the company expects sellers to ensure that their product listings are accurate and do not mislead customers.

However, for TikTok, policing an army of 100,000 sellers and over 200,000 merchants is akin to playing whack-a-mole. The company has struggled to keep illegal products and knockoffs out of its marketplace, which can cause confusion among influencers and users.

Furthermore, TikTok Shop’s affiliate program, which pays out based on future sales, encourages creators to push items regardless of quality in order to make money.

Some TikTok influencers aren’t sure what’s real or fake

While some creators appear to purposefully muddy the waters regarding the authenticity of a product, others are genuinely unsure whether the goods they’re selling are genuine.

Because TikTok has faced an onslaught of counterfeit products in categories such as sportswear and skincare, it’s understandable that creators and users are confused about what’s real and what’s not.

Vincent Patritto, a TikTok user, went viral in September after promoting a pair of Crocs that were available on TikTok Shop. He modeled a pair of shoes he bought on Amazon but discovered were for sale on TikTok in his video. He wasn’t sure whether the TikTok Shop listing was genuine.

“Obviously TikTok has to answer to some of this if they’ve got counterfeiters selling on their site or their app, but as far as I can tell from the ads and the options, they appear to be the legitimate thing,” he told Insider just a few days after his video went viral. “Until people who have made their order start receiving the products and find out if they’re counterfeit or not, that’s kind of where it stands.”

After worrying for a few weeks that he had directed his followers to a fake product, he later shared a screenshot with Insider of a user comment indicating the Crocs were genuine.

Since then, the Crocs listing Patritto posted appears to have been removed from TikTok Shop, though a slew of low-cost Crocs are still available through other sellers on the app for prices ranging from $13.33 to $18.82 and $19.27. On its website, Crocs charges around $50 for its classic clog. Insider’s request for comment was not responded to.

When Insider questioned New School Prime, a TikTok Shop seller, about the authenticity of their $28.79 “Crocs Classic Clog,” which had been purchased approximately 2,600 times, the merchant stated that all of its products were “brand new and authentic.” The merchant’s shop closed without explanation less than a week later.

TikTok Shop customers have also been perplexed by the appearance of a series of low-cost belt bags that appear to be a knockoff of the popular $48 Lululemon 1L “Everywhere Belt Bag.” Some of the influencers promoting the bags have focused their videos on whether the item is “legit” or not. Many of the items’ TikTok Shop listings do not explicitly state that they are from Lululemon, with some merchants describing the bag as a “Lululimonn,” “Lululemoon,” or “Lololemons” accessory.

A Lululemon Athletica spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, but several of the belt bags Insider reported to the company and TikTok’s communications team were removed after Insider sent links to the listings.

Fake influencer videos could be the next big marketplace quality challenge

Policing influencer content could be a major challenge as large tech platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Pinterest, as well as a slew of startups, try to push social shopping into the mainstream in the United States.

Influencers are set to play a larger role in the online shopping experience as traditional e-commerce platforms such as Amazon launch TikTok-style video feeds.

Influencer promotions that are misleading could become as problematic for marketplaces as fake reviews. Amazon recently co-launched a program with Glassdoor, Expedia Group, and Tripadvisor to combat fake reviews and elevate trustworthy user content.

Unlike some programs, such as Amazon Vine, where users are given free products in exchange for reviews but are not paid a percentage of future sales, TikTokers earn money based on the number of Shop sales their videos generate. This monetary incentive may encourage positive feedback regardless of product quality.

“The fact that it’s a commission model means that they’re going to have a very strong incentive to say that it’s a high-quality product and really push people hard to buy it,” Hollenbeck, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley,

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