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As seen on TikTok is the new As seen on TV

As seen on TikTok  is the new  As seen on TV
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A column of candy, left, featured in TikTok videos is displayed at It Sugar candy store on the Upper East Side of New York, on Oct. 6, 2021. (Mary Altaffer / AP)

NEW YORK -

Near the Twizzlers and Sour Patch Kids at It Sugar are random items -- fidget toys, fruit-shaped soft jelly candies -- that earned a spot on the candy store s shelves because they went viral on TikTok.

A flood of videos last year showed people biting into the fruit gummies plastic casing, squirting artificially-coloured jelly from their mouths. Store staffers urged the company to stock up, and the gummies did so well that It Sugar decided to make TikTok part of its sales strategy. The chain now has signs with the app s logo in stores, and goods from TikTok make up 5% to 10% of weekly sales.

"That s an insane number," said Chris Lindstedt, the assistant vice president of merchandising at It Sugar, which has about 100 locations.

TikTok, an app best known for dancing videos with 1 billion users worldwide, has also become a shopping phenomenon. National chains, hoping to get TikTok s mostly young users into its stores, are setting up TikTok sections, reminiscent of "As Seen On TV" stores that sold products hawked on infomercials.

At Barnes & Noble, tables display signs with #BookTok, a book recommendation hashtag on TikTok that has pushed paperbacks up the bestseller list. Amazon has a section of its site it calls "Internet Famous," with lists of products that anyone who has spent time on TikTok would recognize.

The hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt has gotten more than 5 billion views on TikTok, and the app has made a grab-bag of products a surprise hit: leggings, purses, cleaners, even feta cheese. Videos of a baked feta pasta recipe sent the salty white cheese flying out of supermarket refrigerators earlier this year.

It s hard to crack the code of what becomes the next TikTok sensation. How TikTok decides who gets to see what remains largely a mystery. Companies are often caught off guard and tend to swoop in after their product has taken off, showering creators with free stuff, hiring them to appear in commercials or buying up ads on TikTok.

"It was a little bit of a head scratcher at first," said Jenny Campbell, the chief marketing officer of Kate Spade, remembering when searches for "heart" spiked on Kate Spade s website earlier this year.

The culprit turned out to be a 60-second clip on TikTok posted by 22-year-old Nathalie Covarrubias. She recorded herself in a parked car gushing about a pink heart-shaped purse she d just bought. Others copied her video, posting TikToks of themselves buying the bag or trying it on with different outfits. The US$300 heart-shaped purse sold out.

"I couldn t believe it because I wasn t trying to advertise the bag," said Covarrubias, a makeup artist from Salinas, California, who wasn t paid to post the video. "I really was so excited and happy about the purse and how unique it was."

Kate Spade sent Covarrubias free items in exchange for posting another TikTok when the bag was back in stores. (That video was marked as an ad.) It turned what was supposed to be a limited Valentine s Day purse into one sold year round in different colours and fabrics, such as faux fur.

TikTok is a powerful purchasing push for Gen Z because the creators seem authentic, as opposed to Instagram, where the goal is to post the most perfect looking selfie, said Hana Ben-Shabat, the founder of Gen Z Planet. Her advisory firm focuses on the generation born between the late 1990s and 2016, a cohort that practically lives on TikTok.

Users trust the recommendations, she said: "This is a real person, telling me a real story."

Instagram, YouTube and other platforms connected people with friends or random funny videos before marketers realized their selling potential. For TikTok, losing the veneer of authenticity as more ads and ways to shop flood the app could be a risk. If ads are "blatant or awkward, it s more of a problem," said Colin Campbell, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of San Diego.

Influencers who get paid to shill for brands are getting better at pitching goods to their followers, telling them that even though they get paid, they re recommending a product they actually like. "They feel like they are our friend, even though they aren t," he said.

Channah Myers, a 21-year-old barista from Goodyear, Arizona, bought a pair of $50 Aerie leggings after seeing several TikTok videos of women saying the cross-banding on the waist gave them a more hourglass-like figure. "It s funny, I shop religiously at Aerie and I had no idea they existed until I saw them on TikTok," Myers said.

After those Aerie leggings went viral on TikTok in 2020, the teen retailer expanded the same design to biker shorts, tennis skirts and bikini bottoms, all of which can be found by searching "TikTok" on Aerie s website. It wouldn t say how many of the leggings sold.
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