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Published: Aug 10, 2023 5 min read
Illustration depicting TikTok shop
Rangely García for Money

NPCs aren't the only financial trend unfolding on TikTok right now — if you've been anywhere near a "for you" page in recent weeks, you've likely encountered TikTok Shop.

Seemingly every other video on the social media platform has a button that appears right above the caption; when you tap on it, it takes you to a virtual store where you can order crop-top bras, Lion Latches or personalized tumblers without ever leaving the TikTok app.

It's easy to use — but is there a catch? As with any online retailer, you should know what you're getting into before you type in your credit card number.

What is TikTok Shop?

According to the company, TikTok Shop is very much still in a development phase. It soft-launched in November and moved to beta testing this past April.

Since its inception in 2016, TikTok has proven to be so much more than a silly dance app — it’s a business powerhouse where users love to discover, review and share products. (Need proof? The hashtag #tiktokmademebuyit has over 64 billion views.)

Is TikTok Shop safe?

TikTok says merchants are vetted before they can launch on TikTok Shop, and once they’re live, they must follow a set of guidelines that prohibits fake, fraudulent or misleading content. When someone makes a purchase, the company collects data “to provide our shopping features and facilitate the purchase and delivery of products, goods and services,” according to its privacy policy.

But TikTok doesn’t actually handle the payment itself — it uses the third-party services PayPal and Stripe to process the transaction.

PayPal and Stripe are considered relatively safe; they both use encryption to guard folks' financial data. TikTok also claims it doesn’t store customers' personal information after they buy an item.

Even so, Don Grant, a certified financial planner, says to proceed with caution.

“Those who post on TikTok want something from you,” he points out. “The TikTok platform wants something from you. If that ‘something’ is of value, viewers may only know it once it’s missing.”

How does TikTok Shop make money?

Here’s the rub: TikTok takes a cut of shop sales from merchants, so it has a vested interest in getting you to shop — and splurge — in the app.

The company has big plans for expansion, too. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the social platform is gearing up to launch a marketplace called the TikTok Shop Shopping Center. The Atlantic wrote that “TikTok’s turn to e-commerce, in theory, has the potential to be massive, capable of competing with the likes of Amazon.”

How to shop responsibly on TikTok

The TikTok Shop interface is so smooth that "you can basically click on something and buy it in a matter of seconds," says shopping expert Trae Bodge. It reduces the pain of paying, a behavioral economics concept that refers to the unpleasant feelings a person gets when they spend money.

That "pain" is important because it regulates people’s desire to buy stuff. When it goes away — say, because you’ve seen 50 increasingly convincing bra videos and the button to buy one is right there — so is that self-regulation.

“Because of the ease of shopping, people don’t take the time to read reviews or look for ways to save more,” Bodge says. “That ease is a gateway for potential overspending, or less informed spending, on the general internet.”

She recommends slowing down and pausing whenever possible. Sure, TikTok Shop might be convenient, but it means you might miss out on discounts and coupons offered by other vendors elsewhere online.

Before mindlessly throwing things into your cart on TikTok Shop, Grant suggests you ask yourself two crucial questions: 1) “Do I really need this?” and 2) “Is there another platform that I trust from which I can purchase the same product or service?”

The answers will guide you.

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