Like most small business owners, Madison Riddolls uses TikTok to sell hair accessories. But in the past year, Riddolls who has nearly 20,000 followers, has found a new way to leverage the social media platform. It all began with her boyfriend going on TikTok Live — a separate feed on the platform where creators can livestream to interact with viewers in real-time — and began selling scrunchies he sewed.
“A lot of people were coming into our lives to get to know me as a business owner,” Riddolls says. “I treat my TikTok Lives as though it's my storefront if I had a brick and mortar store.”
TikTok Live was initially intended as a way for influencers to interact with their fans, with many creators hosting Q&As or sharing live makeup tutorials. But small business owners have found that TikTok Live is also a good way to sell products in real time.
For her part, Riddolls goes live while packaging orders and offers incentives, like free products or unreleased items, to people who buy while she streams. An order counter, which connects to her Shopify account, sits in the background to mark new orders as they come in.
“I'm at now at a point where, if I go live, I will get an order at least one order out of it, which is great for a small business,” Riddolls says.
Live shopping has slowly gained popularity outside of Asia, where the market has grown to over $3 billion. While social media platforms have helped boost ecommerce, live shopping has yet to take off in the U.S. Nonetheless, TikTok is testing its live shopping feature TikTok Shop in the U.S.
But few creators have access to TikTok Shop. The program has found only moderate success in the U.K., where creators have complained about low payments, and expansion to the U.S. was previously considered a shelved project. Without access to TikTok Shop, many small businesses are using TikTok Live as a substitute.
Carla Diaz, who owns the party company Pickaparty, previously used TikTok to livestream while selling face paint at swap meets, which often resulted in viewers visiting her in person. She didn’t start selling products until two weeks ago after her followers outside of Los Angeles wanted a way to buy from her.
But last Thursday, Diaz was shocked when her account was suddenly banned from using the feature. Her sister gave her access to her account to stream, but Diaz soon found that the account was banned as well. Diaz suspects it is one specific person following her across different accounts and reporting her content.
“You get stressed out because you bought so much merchandise,” Diaz says. “I still have other channels to sell it through but TikTok is a big loss for me.”
In the meantime, Diaz has contacted TikTok to try and restore her access to livestreaming. She’s also gone live on Instagram but has found that it is harder to grow views. Of course, other platforms like WhatNot and TalkShopLive are built entirely to support livestream shopping. But Diaz says she likes to intersperse her business-forward content with personal content, moving between going live while making coffee and sharing life advice to showing off new merchandise. She says other platforms cater more towards creators who solely want to livestream to sell items.
“There's this uniqueness of TikTok that I will never find anywhere else, which is why I stay on the app because it lends itself to the way that I present myself,” Diaz says. “I don't think I'd be able to find that anywhere else to be honest.”
But even creators who haven’t been banned have had difficulties with TikTok Live in recent months. Many have seen their average views decrease significantly. Dasha Derkach, who has used TikTok Live to promote her scrunchie business Enchanted Scrunch since February of 2021, says her lives used to get around 40,000 viewers last year. These days, they hover around 1,000. Having spoken with other small business owners, Derkach says no one has a clear reason to explain this drop in views.
And though Derkach is one of the creators with access to TikTok Shop, so far the feature hasn’t impressed her. Due to TikTok’s partnership with TalkShopLive, the program doesn’t integrate with Shopify, the company Derkach uses to host her business. And sales aren’t substantial either, as she’s only made five sales through the platform in the last month. Considering that she makes anywhere from five to forty sales every time she uses TikTok Live, Derkach finds that her audience is more receptive to that promotion method.
“I feel like most customers don't trust TikTok Shop yet,” Derkach says.
Riddolls has also seen her views waver, with only about 1,000 people total joining her lives compared to the many thousands from a year ago. But even with the difficulties of going live, Riddolls says it's an invaluable tool for people trying to reach more customers.
“TikTok Lives are the easiest way for me to connect with people,” Riddolls says. “People are either buying out of convenience and just grabbing whatever they can off Amazon or they really want to be connected.”
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