Lindsey Holland first noticed crystal sellers appearing on her TikTok feed in December.
Out of curiosity, the 29-year-old content creator started watching their livestreams, which often feature hosts working from fluorescent-lit offices in China pointing to containers of polished stones, bracelets and necklace pendants, while signs placed above beckon viewers to spend between $2.99 and $9.99 for a “lucky scoop.”
If viewers place an order on TikTok itself or through a website in the user’s bio, the host will take a scoop of the crystals on camera while people watch. Then they mail them to customers. Holland, who lives in Memphis, Tennessee, has never bought a scoop herself, but found the videos mesmerizing.
One of her favorite hosts is a woman who calls herself Jessica and livestreams under the account @dh_crystal_service, which has more than 340,000 followers. When the mix of stones is particularly good, Jessica slowly shouts “Oh my, Lady Gaga.”
“I love that so much. I think it’s hilarious,” Holland said. “It makes me laugh every time I hear it.”
Over the last few years, many e-commerce experts have predicted that livestreams like the ones she watches would become the future of online shopping in the United States. The format blends commerce and entertainment, providing an experience similar to watching QVC or HSN (formally known as the Home Shopping Network) but geared toward Generation Z. It was promised to help consumers interact with products directly, boosting their trust in a brand.
That potential led startups, major retailers and tech giants, including Nordstrom, Instagram and YouTube, to start experimenting with livestream shopping. Amazon now has a wide range of live content on its website, and in November, Walmart celebrated one year of livestreams with a Twitter event hosted by the pop star Jason Derulo.
But those efforts have so far only succeeded in capturing a tiny sliver of the overall e-commerce market, said Juozas Kaziukėnas, founder and CEO of the e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse. “We’ve been talking about live commerce and social commerce for years and have little progress to show for it.” he said. The industry remains much larger in China, where livestream shopping is expected to generate more than $400 billion in sales this year, according to McKinsey and Co.
Now, experts say, TikTok, whose parent company is based in China, may be having more success with the trend than its competitors. NBC News found dozens of accounts on TikTok that go live nearly every day to hawk stuffed animals, colored contact lenses, keychains, shoes, phone cases, faux leather purses, makeup tools, as well as a plethora of other goods. Some influencers have amassed more than 100,000 followers and regularly have hundreds or thousands of people watching their livestreams concurrently.
These influencers are receiving plenty of support from TikTok. In recent months, the platform has made a greater effort to funnel the attention they get into purchases directly within its app, rather than on Amazon or other retailers. Two livestreaming hosts confirmed they were receiving financial help from TikTok, which subsidized their stores’ shipping costs to customers in the United Kingdom. A third host said she was invited to Zoom calls with representatives from the company and other livestreamers to talk about new features and trends.
“If anyone can figure out live commerce, it won’t be Amazon, Walmart or any other incumbent, but instead platforms like TikTok that already have the attention of users,” Kaziukėnas said. “It is more likely that TikTok will learn how to add shopping than Amazon will learn how to become social.”
But shoppers and hosts have complained that TikTok is not coupling its livestreaming programs with enough moderation and consumer safety features. Several hosts said they were unfairly banned from livestreaming, and some customers have complained on Facebook and other platforms about receiving products from TikTok that were not what they expected.
Prasuna Cheruku, founder of the influencer talent agency Diversifi Talent, said she has worked with a number of creators who were banned from livestreaming for unclear reasons, whether or not they were selling anything.
“If there are more opportunities on live, how are they going to be solving these issues with people getting banned from it?” she said.
On Facebook, hundreds of people have joined a “Scams/Refunds/Advice” group specifically for crystal purchases bought from some of the dozens of different crystal livestreamers on TikTok. In comments during crystal livestreams, some customers have complained that they never received their orders or couldn’t get a refund for what they alleged were counterfeit stones.
TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, did not respond to requests for comment. On its website, TikTok has extensive rules that it says merchants on its platform are required to follow, including abiding by local consumer regulations.
Many TikTok livestreaming sellers list that they are based in mainland China or have websites that trace back to the country. The hosts are often recent college graduates hired by e-commerce companies for their foreign language skills, according to local Chinese media reports.
The jobs are part of the country’s growing “cross-border” e-commerce industry that sells a variety of goods to overseas consumers directly online. One TikTok crystal seller identified by NBC News shares a PayPal account with a company selling coffee mugs on Amazon shaped like car tires.
“Being physically in China very close to the supply chain and being able to choose what’s coming out of the factories is a big advantage and very different from what streamers can do here,” said Rui Ma, founder of the investment consulting firm Tech Buzz China.
But small businesses based in the U.S. and other countries are also increasingly livestreaming on TikTok to large audiences.
“TikTok has been the biggest contributor to our sales and success,” said Lauren Davis, a content creator who hosts weekly livestreams from her family’s North Carolina hemp farm, which produces small batches of CBD products.
She has been hosting livestreams since 2020, and her TikTok account, @FiddyShadesofGreen, now has more than 830,000 followers. Customers who choose to buy during a livestream get the chance to spin a giveaway wheel to win various prizes, like CBD-infused body care products.
“My momma and I call out the name of the person who placed an order, and chant ‘Big money, no whammies, big money, no whammies!’” Davis said.
But she added that TikTok doesn’t always make it easy for her to connect with viewers.
“Because we grow hemp, my momma and I do have to be very careful during our livestream because we will get censored,” Davis said. “We’ve sadly had several banned for educating about the plant we grow, despite ensuring we do it in a very wholesome, informative way.”
Franklin Chu, managing director of the e-commerce agency Azoya International and a former member of the Home Shopping Network’s board, noted that this latest trend demonstrates how live shopping has evolved since it first became popular in the 1980s.
“I think a superficial reaction is to say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s so similar to television shopping,’” he said. “If you look a little deeper, there are some important distinctions between the two.”
The original TV format pioneered by networks like HSN was expensive to produce, Chu said, and made it far more difficult for viewers to interact with hosts. Today, almost any business can start livestreaming directly to its customers, who can ask questions and provide feedback in real time.
For now, it looks like TikTok livestreamers are acquiring fans who come back to make multiple purchases. Katie Walmsley, a 21-year-old who lives in the U.K., started buying crystals on TikTok after her little sister sent her a link to a crystal livestreamer in December.
Soon Walmsley’s For You page, which is the main algorithm that powers TikTok, began to feed her other crystal livestreamers. She eventually placed over half a dozen orders with @jingling_crystal, a smaller seller with more than 15,000 followers. So far, she said, she has spent about $55 on crystals, which arrived roughly two weeks after she placed the orders.
But she also sees the limits of shopping on TikTok. Lately Walmsley said the market for crystals on TikTok has become more saturated and less fun. “The quality doesn’t look great and they aren’t filmed very well,” she said.