The Marketplace Boom   //   May 15, 2024

‘Buckle up for the first thirty days’: On TikTok Shop, brands continue to deal with a buggy and opaque platform

Just before Lisa Guerrera, founder of TikTok-viral beauty brand Experiment, signed up for the U.S. version of the social media company’s online marketplace, she sought the advice of veteran sellers on the platform. Her question for them: Was TikTok Shop worth it? 

“They said, ‘Buckle up for the first thirty days,” Guerrera said in a phone interview, referring to the myriad of performance bugs and disruptions that sellers have generally experienced on the platform. Sellers told her they experienced issues ranging from artificial intelligence that erroneously gets products taken down to buggy platform integration.

About three months later, despite an onboarding process she described as “glitchy,” Guerrera agrees that TikTok Shop has, so far, been worth it. But the platform’s bugs are a headache she’d rather not have to deal with.

Guerrera’s experience is indicative of how — in the eight months since TikTok Shop debuted in the U.S. — pain points still abound on the platform.

Brands and agencies interviewed by Modern Retail generally said that the platform experience has noticeably improved since TikTok Shop launched in September. Like Guerrera, many also said they viewed the platform’s growing pains as simply the cost of doing business on a nascent marketplace like TikTok Shop. In other words, they expect TikTok will fine-tune things eventually — and in the meantime, the platform’s 500,000 merchants are just gritting their teeth.

But TikTok is also in a race against the clock after President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that requires TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance to sell its stake in the app within a year or face a ban in the U.S. The platform is under intense scrutiny over concerns that the Chinese government can access user data. TikTok has responded with a lawsuit of its own, decrying the law as unconstitutional. 

TikTok did not respond to requests for comment. 

Not plug-and-play 

For most brands and sellers, issues start as soon as they onboard. To get approved, sellers first have to fill out an application and verify their identity. From there, merchants can merge their e-commerce store and sync their inventory, order and sales data, whether they use Shopify, BigCommerce or another similar platform. Sellers can also integrate their shipping and fulfillment platforms.

“In full transparency, every single client we’ve had who has tried to set up TikTok Shop, whether they’re running it today or they’re still trying to get it up and running, they’ve all had some sort of issue,” said Katya Constantine, founder of agency Digishopgirl Media. Constantine said about nine of her clients have fully integrated their operations with TikTok Shop — whether that’s syncing their products or how orders get fulfilled. But another five or so of Constantine’s clients are still struggling to get their integrations to work. “The issues are different. They’re not consistently the same, so it’s not the easiest product to get going,” she said. 

Part of the problem, said Constantine, is that the set-up process is more manual compared to other platforms, such as Shopify. “All those programs were much more plug-and-play and didn’t require an interaction with somebody else to troubleshoot anything,” she said.

To some extent, TikTok’s various bugs create a barrier to entry, especially for smaller to mid-sized businesses. “We’ve had brands come to us after trying to work with five different agencies that weren’t able to help them with something that should have been a self-service feature with the TikTok Shop portal,” said Nicole Rechtszaid, co-founder and co-CEO of Ghost Agency. Brands without a dedicated TikTok Shop account manager or partner agency who can help navigate the platform’s hiccups may struggle more than most to resolve issues, she said. 

The time it takes to get issues resolved varies wildly. 

“You have to do your best to make a case to a customer service agent that doesn’t want to help you or your account manager, hopefully, if you have one, which can be a multi-day or multi-week process,” said Jimmy Hadden, head of social commerce at Wyze Labs. 

“It really depends on the account manager,” according to one agency executive, who spoke to Modern Retail on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationship with TikTok. “I have some account managers who are awesome, and I have some account managers who I haven’t heard from since December.” 

‘Annoying’ artificial intelligence

One of the biggest gripes for sellers and agencies on TikTok Shop is its AI-powered algorithm, which will often erroneously flag products as breaking the platform’s terms of service or falling under its restricted products category.  

The same agency executive described a seller who approached the agency about a cream that had racked up $500,000 worth of sales on the platform — that is, until TikTok Shop’s AI incorrectly flagged it as doling out health advice, a policy violation, even though the product wasn’t. Meanwhile, a competitor’s product was marketed the same way but wasn’t taken down. “One day it can be a gold mine, and then the next day, your product gets taken down and you’re out of luck,” the agency executive said. 

Similarly, Guerrera’s brand sells a beauty gel known as “Buffer Jelly.” TikTok’s AI incorrectly flagged it as a food product, another violation since Experiment hadn’t submitted the necessary documentation to sell what TikTok had classified as being food. The gel was taken down for several days but was ultimately restored after Guerrera’s company pleaded its case to TikTok’s customer service. “There was a moment where TikTok was like, ‘Can you name the product differently? And we’re like, ‘No, we can’t,’” said Guerrera. 

The beauty brand has also had issues with its newest product, a lip treatment dubbed “Softwear.” The name has confused TikTok’s AI into flagging it as pajamas. “It’s annoying, but ultimately, the issues get resolved,” said Guerrera. 

This problem is even more intense for businesses on TikTok that sell a plethora of products, according to Ghost Agency’s co-CEO Jenny Woo. For larger shops, it can take repeated appeals to TikTok’s customer service team for a single product. “It depends on the amount of SKUs because some shops might only have ten to twenty  SKUs, some might have hundreds and others might have thousands, so it can feel infinite,” said Woo. 

All told, Woo described the platform’s various bugs as “a daily issue.”

‘Building trust’

To be sure, some of the pain points sellers described exist to protect the platform’s credibility. For example, new sellers undergo a 30-day probationary period in which they are capped at 200 sales in a single day when they initially join TikTok Shop. Given the viral nature of TikTok, the policy ensures new shops don’t bite off more than they can chew, said Guerrera. TikTok also places a big emphasis on reviews: Sellers want to stay above four stars or they risk being more closely scrutinized by TikTok. It’s part of TikTok Shop’s strategy to prevent fraud and bad actors. 

“As frustrating as it can be sometimes for a brand founder, I think it’s ultimately for the good of the platform,” said Guerrera. “TikTok is all about building trust right now.” 

Indeed, TikTok said in its first TikTok Shop Safety Report that it deactivated 1 million sellers from the app and removed their products due for violating its policies in the last half of 2023. The company also said it spent more than $400 million on platform safety. 

Despite the headaches, sellers and merchants are optimistic that TikTok will work out the kinks eventually. 

For Ana Barrett, director of social commerce at marketing agency LiveCraft, TikTok has been receptive to feedback from merchants and agencies on the platform, and that’s reflected in improvements that have been implemented over time. 

“It’s definitely changed for the better as time goes on,” said Barrett. “It’s still exciting to be in this space and to see the success that we’ve seen.”