Will TikTok-loving Gen Z kill the Great British high street?
The Chinese app's marketplace is soaring in sales - but critics claim it's a hotbed for scams and sweatshops. Could it really kill off brick and mortar browsing?
The first thing I’m shown is a £6 perfume. The second is a £4.90 ‘golden’ Rolex rip-off.
I’m trawling through the maelstrom that is the TikTok Shop — the all-in-one retail rival browsed by 13 million a month, and tipped to become a high-street killer.
For London’s young fashionistas, the days of filtering down high streets, sifting round aisles, and hauling designer bags back home are over.
So it’s goodbye to the opulence of Oxford Street; au revoir to the Avenue Montaigne — at least if the TikTok generation get their way.
Instead, the lure of 70% discounts, live streams and “shoppertainment” has dragged Gen Z’s wallets to the short-form video app along with their eyes — putting the high street at risk of losing its most crucial market.
Christina Watson, CEO of social media marketing agency InChief, said TikTok’s rapid shopping expansion threatened the livelihood of high streets if they were unwilling to adapt.
She declared: ‘The high street needs to evolve, and I still find it really weird that I can walk into a Zara and have to queue to pay for clothes.
‘That's why retail is going to kill itself. Many, many times I’ve seen a queue and said “I’m just gonna ditch this”. Whereas on TikTok, that's four clicks. And it’s all in the app.’
The #TikTokmademebuyit movement — the vehicle which launched the shop into the mainstream — has racked up more than 43 billion views. The marketplace, launched a little over two years ago, has now expanded beyond clothes and jewellery to encompass specialised parent and baby ranges.
Business dictionaries would normally call it horizontal integration. Or vertical integration. Or both. It doesn’t really matter, because TikTok has its own name for it’s all-in-one buying experience: “shoppertainment”. It’s designed, the social media firm says, to make buying items part of a so-called ‘infinite loop’ where shoppers discover, consider, purchase, review and participate in the shop without ever leaving the app.
‘The reality of “see now buy now” is that it is going to take over the world,’ notes Watson — who likened TikTok’s retail diversification to its Chinese sister app Douyin.
‘It’s happened in my household - there are things we own that my children wanted because they went viral on TikTok.’
The platform’s own research last year revealed six in ten of the app’s 23 million monthly British users have used TikTok Shop to browse or buy products, whilst research by powerhouse consulting group BCG found “shoppertainment” to be an untapped market powerplay worth $1 trillion in Asia alone.
But whilst big-store stalwarts are already on TikTok — Primark (950,000 followers), River Island (77,000 followers) and GymShark (4.5 million followers) to name a few — none of them sell directly through the app.
And very few sellers on the site are verified as official — allowing obvious cons, like a one pence jumper offer, to find their way unfettered onto the screens of prospective buyers.
Recordings from sales streams reveal that several high-profile TikTok sellers are refusing to reveal the origins of their own stock. In one video, a vendor modelling a white puffer jacket is pushed on how the coat could be sold for just £7.99. In response, she told hundreds of viewers: ‘Don’t even question it, guys’.
The clips have raised serious ethical concerns about the sourcing of the clothes and their surging popularity in the British retail space.
‘A lot more people are understanding that they shouldn't buy into fast fashion because of that reason,’ Watson added.
‘Somebody has lost out in the supply chain if that is how much they can sell something for. And then that drives the mindset of people thinking: “Well, why would I pay more than four pounds for a top?”’
Analysis of dozens of products show buying a basic outfit is almost 70% cheaper on TikTok than in several leading high-street retailers.
But a lack of oversight on the app’s marketplace has led to the rise of ‘dropshipping’ – where low-quality goods are imported from foreign markets, including China, and sold at cheap inflated prices with no middleman.
WATCH: Can I Become A TikTok Seller In A Day?
Watson said of the shop’s management: ‘Because of dropshipping people wait six weeks for packages to arrive, which is not good for anyone.
‘The challenge with that is you then tell TikTok customer service your parcel is delayed or hasn’t arrived, but they brush it off to the person selling it.’
Gen Z James Bishop was one such wronged buyer. He paid £16 for a jumper, two t-shirts and a hat on the store earlier this year. Each of the products came from unverified buyers - albeit with four-star reviews.
The student, 20, said: ‘The problem I had with it was when I ordered anything I never had any idea if was working.
‘Nobody sent me any confirmation, and I never got delivery updates. Every order felt like a giant hit and hope that a parcel would actually arrive, and even if it did, it was late.
‘The entire thing feels like a giant bait and switch if you want something with any quality.
‘If this is going to replace retail, then God help us all.’
The surge in short-form retail — the TikTokification of the shopping experience — has left high-street campaigners banking on superior service and better quality to stave off virtual rivals.
Save The High Street founder Alex Schlagman says the UK’s 260,000 brick-built shops were ‘well placed to counter the issues of buying through TikTok.
‘From trust… to quick delivery and click and collect, modern local boutiques have what it takes to give Gen Z consumers what they want.’
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.