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The beauty and wellness industry has experienced a dramatic transformation since the pandemic’s start back in March of 2020. With the masses cooped up in their homes for months, the beauty and wellness industry suffered since no one was getting ready to go anywhere. Tiktok’s unprecedented success and subsequent rapid growth during the pandemic contributed to the current boom in product innovation and sales. Is this too much of a good thing? Has the market become oversaturated? Will small brands get the same chance to thrive? 

TikTok’s Selling Power

Social media companies have been conjuring up “social commerce” for years, boasting large advertising budgets and constantly propositioning consumers to buy and sell, all to get a coveted chunk of the social media mega-market.

Enter TikTok. The company saw its base increase exponentially since the spring of 2020. At the beginning of 2020, the platform had around 500 million users worldwide. The company then surpassed a billion by the fall of that year and continues to grow rapidly. 

Brands have begun to utilize the app’s commerce tools, and TikTok’s influencer economy is growing at an astronomical pace. Many products appear in users’ feeds in a manner that feels organic, setting it apart from other social commerce platforms that feel less authentic. As YouTubers have done since the early 2010s, people use TikTok to talk about the things they buy. But TikTok’s influence and reach have surpassed, and innovated beyond its predecessors. 

The reach that TikTok has amassed is hard to fathom. For example, the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt has over five billion views globally and an endless scroll of videos showing off every possible purchase, from makeup primers to levitating lamps. It’s no wonder that beauty brands both big and small are tapping into the selling power of TikTok.

When Maybelline New York launched its Sky High Mascara stateside in November 2020, it partnered with TikTokers, asking them to give a simple review of their first impressions. The tube sold out at American cosmetics retailer Ulta on four separate occasions. When it launched in Canada two months later, it was sold out online at Shoppers Drug Mart and Walmart within 72 hours. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

A Fashion Magazine recalls, Before that, Elf Cosmetics was one of the first beauty brands to drum up buzz on TikTok. The affordable drugstore makeup brand made an original song called “Eyes. Lips. Face. (e.l.f.)” and released it on the app, coupled with a contest to engage users. In the blink of an eye, there were roughly one million posts using the sound, including authentic submissions from A-listers like Lizzo and Reese Witherspoon.

Isle of Paradise, a self-tanning brand, and affordable drugstore skincare brand CeraVe found themselves out of stock for months after TikTokers boasted about the beloved products. While this is great for brand revenue, as a consumer…it’s a bit frustrating. If anyone enjoyed a certain product for years as a staple in their routine, and that product went viral on TikTok, you better start looking for new staples. 

As of early January 2022, TikTok’s base continues to climb, and rapidly. According to a recent report by Pathmatics, people watch 1.2 billion videos per day on TikTok alone and overall watch more than 3 billion videos daily across all platforms. It’s hard to fully comprehend the way this could affect eCommerce. 

Why TikTok? 

TikTok’s young, media-raised demographic, coupled with the app’s remarkably curated algorithm allows users to elevate brands into the stratosphere. And it’s not only new exciting products either – TikTok users have even revived classic brands. 

For example, Bissell’s iconic portable carpet cleaner, The Little Green Machine has been on the market since 1997, which might as well be a century ago. Americans born between 1970 and 1990, can probably remember commercials for its predecessors as the New York Times puts it: “the suspiciously miraculous lifting of dirt through a translucent nozzle, the reservoir of revolting extracted liquid.”

Thanks to TikTok, its sales have more than doubled as hundreds of videos featuring the device have spread across “CleanTok” and amassed millions of views.

So what’s the secret sauce? The TikTok algorithm’s proficiency embarrasses every other social media platform (looking at you, Instagram). TikTok’s “For You” feed is so expertly curated, that it’s entirely possible a commercial from the year 1972 is likely to appear on the timeline of a user from that era.  It’s a constant-discovery loop, providing instant satisfaction with every scroll. The content is audience-informed, and not the other way around. 

According to Seth Kean, CEO of ROI Influencer, a New York City company that measures engagement and sell-through across social media platforms, “For every million dollars that brands spend on influencer marketing on TikTok, they’re seeing $7.2 million in sales over the first 90 days.”

It doesn’t stop there. A 15-year-old student opened a store in his local mall called “Viral Trends NY,” which carries TikTok mainstays like viral beauty products, and the coveted Squishmallow. The student told Rebecca Jennings at Vox, “Everything in this store is in super high demand and you really can’t find it anywhere else except on eBay fully marked up.” There’s also the  “TikTok Block,” in Manhattan, where two big TikTokers have opened shops with curated vintage clothing. Jennings continues,  “There is now so much stuff that’s gone viral on TikTok that the factories producing those products have gotten on TikTok and now have a hand in making them go viral in the first place.”

Another major factor in TikTok’s uncanny ability to sell a product is its quick, eye-catching 15-60 second formula. A 3-minute option was later added, but for the purposes of eCommerce, the 15-60 second range is the sweet spot. People can watch dozens and dozens of short TikToks selling 25 different products in the time it takes to watch a single YouTube video selling one product. That also makes it easy for newbies to get in on the action if they’re convincing enough, welcoming more creators onto the platform. To lead a successful YouTube channel in which you can capitalize, you need equipment and a bit of expertise. On TikTok, all you need is your phone, and not even a particularly good one at that. Moreover, its duet, stitch, and share sound capabilities enhance TikTok’s boisterous remix culture, allowing videos to capitalize off of other videos. 

But overconsumption in a time where sustainability is crucial has created some issues. 

Overconsumption Problems

As mentioned before, it becomes a slippery slope when consumers are unable to come across their favorite products that they’ve been using for a long time because that product went viral on social media. And according to an Insider Intelligence report, people are spending more of their money on social platforms; the number of shoppers buying via social commerce grew by 25 percent from just 2019 to 2020. This means that more products are selling out, quicker than ever. 

This issue is exacerbated by the ongoing logistics crisis the global economy is experiencing. At the end of August of ‘21, there were around 40 vessels awaiting entry to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA, both of which are the busiest container ports in North America. The blockage was born due to 18 months of COVID disruptions to shipping, transportation, warehousing, and labor.

And according to leadership at the Independent Beauty Association. mid-September, the number of ships anchored off California’s shores had exceeded 70.

Overconsumption is clearly at play here. When 6 different affordable moisturizers stocked at the local target go viral in two weeks, curious minds are bound to test out a few. Soon, after a few months, these products begin to build up. Then comes hundreds of dollars of wasted product because a new influencer came out and said that one of the moisturizers that went viral two weeks ago is actually harmful to your skin, and so on and so forth. Beauty microtrends are just as harmful as fashion microtrends are for the environment. Plastic packaging that houses many viral beauty products builds up, and rests in landfills for many years, contributing to the global climate crisis. 

According to the latest reports from Zero Waste Week, beauty packaging amounts to roughly 120 billion units every year. That includes plastic, paper, glass, and metals, all of which will end up polluting the environment in landfills. 

Although consumers can help by separating recyclable pieces themselves, it is not convenient, or realistic to expect consumers to take this responsibility. Furthermore, 8 million tons of plastic find its way into the ocean each year, and cosmetic containers contribute in no small measure. Plastic pollution has devastating consequences. The UN Environmental Program has warned that if the waste trend continues, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Future for TikTok and Beauty eCommerce

It’s crucial for consumers to develop a more critical understanding of their consumption, especially since TikTok shows no signs of slowing down. The app will undoubtedly continue to see massive upward eCommerce growth, and it’s unfortunately up to consumers to be more discerning about what they purchase. For now, we’ll keep an eye on the staggering revenues of the beauty industry, and how social commerce continues to contribute.