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How do retailers know what will sell?  They check out TikTok.

Shoppers no longer look to retailers for what products to buy, how to wear their hair, and what makeup styles are on-trend – they’re finding out for themselves on TikTok. This leaves retailers chasing trends instead of creating them.

Much of the conversation about what to buy is led by shoppers on the once-specialty social media app designed to share dance trends.

“A few years ago TikTok was just a teenage app with 35 million users where you thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know,'” said Debra Williamson, social media analyst at eMarketer. “It will have 79 million users in the United States this year, which is pretty substantial growth.”

But during the pandemic, the app grew 87%, far surpassing Reddit at 25% and Pinterest at 8%, Williamson said. While YouTube still ranks first for app spend, TikTok comes in second, according to a March report from app analytics company App Annie. Overall, consumers around the world spent $ 32 billion in the first three months of 2021 on in-app purchases alone, the company reported.

Consumers around the world spent $ 32 billion buying apps in the first three months of this year alone.

With a predominantly young audience – but a growing share of adult users – businesses are discovering unexpected trends leading to skyrocketing sales and depleted shelves. A product that goes viral on TikTok is like a dance or song that goes viral – it starts with a few trendy designers showcasing a flagship like LED light strips lighting up their rooms or walking through Starbucks to order a ” appucino “complicated custom that sends scrambling subscribers for the same items. Dozens of companies briefly sold products at the height of their virality, including a Stardrops cleanser called The Pink Stuff, a line of butt-enhancing leggings on Amazon, and eyelash-lengthening mascara from Maybelline.

After a devastating year for the retail industry during pandemic shutdowns, TikTok has boosted sales for some of the country’s most iconic, but struggling, businesses. Gap, which has closed more than 100 stores since the start of last year and has struggled to gain relevance with younger shoppers, has seen some of its products unexpectedly take off on TikTok.

Gap’s “cheeky straight-high-rise” jeans and “straight-high-rise” jeans from Gap saw sales increase this year as TikTok helped spur a frenzy for baggy “mom jeans”. Gap saw a 200% increase in the number of cheeky straight jeans sold online in just one day, Mary Alderete, Gap’s global marketing manager, told NBC News in an emailed statement.

Gen Z’s affinity for nostalgic styles of the ’90s and early days also helped the brand. Earlier this year, a basic brown Gap hoodie initially sold in the 2000s took off on TikTok and Instagram where users posted videos of themselves wearing the classic sweatshirt. The #gaphoodie hashtag has gained over 5 million views on TikTok and has raised the price up to $ 300 on resale sites like Depop and Grailed.

“Although the virality comes from the social community and cannot be forced, based on the original response from consumers, we are delighted,” said Alderete.

Following the success of the hoodie, Gap is preparing this week to launch its own campaign with TikTok, in partnership with the app and several designers – including Vienna Skye, Brittani Lancaster and Larray – to allow users to choose the new color. for a revived version of the viral sweatshirt. thanks to crowdsourcing.

Advertising on TikTok is not the same as showing an advertisement on TV. Typically, brands develop trends with a select group of creators such as the song “Eyes, lips, face” launched by elf Cosmetics, which went viral last year with few users realizing that it was. was a campaign.

Amy Simon, spokesperson for online clothing retailer Pretty Little Thing, told NBC News the company is constantly monitoring trends on TikTok. Several of the company’s clothes have gone viral, including a corset and skirt set and a top that a user wore inside out that sold online after the company featured the video on its own TikTok page.

“We monitor responsive moments on TikTok at all times and adapt quickly to trending channel content,” said Simon. “As with our approach to every social media platform, we focus on innovation and responsive content and our TikTok strategy is based on that.”

The explosion of interest in shopping on TikTok has also created a thriving sub-genre of grocery designers who share their finds in thrift or dollar stores. Aprill Dobrowski, 34, of Pennsylvania, who makes videos “transporting” her finds to the Five Below discount store, told NBC News people are drawn to her videos because she tests products to prevent other shoppers from. waste their time going to the store. for a particular item.

In one video, she buys five lamps from Five Below only to find on her way home that four of them have burst and lit up as soon as she plugged them in.

TikTok has increased some retailers’ estimates of how quickly shoppers will return to stores and help boost economic recovery.

“For that one, I just wanted to warn people because I think in my opinion it could have been a fire hazard and these things are still on the shelves,” she said.

Five Below did not respond to an NBC News request for comment.

With inflation raising prices and a forked economy still squeezing the wallets of some shoppers, TikTok has increased some retailers’ estimates of how quickly shoppers will return to stores and help drive the economy towards recovery.

“Engagement with social media platforms like TikTok breathes new life into the color cosmetics category, engages younger audiences, drives trends and invigorates testing and use,” said David Kimbell, CEO of ‘Ulta Beauty, to investors in May. “These engines, combined with an expanded pipeline of new products expected in the second half of 2021, increase our optimism about the pace of recovery in the make-up category this year.”

As TikTok grows and influences store shelves, retailers and their marketing teams are taking notice.

“Most advertisers want to reach people where they share who they want to be and what they want to look like,” Williamson said. “It’s always a good environment to push your advertising. “

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