While many of his peers are sleeping, gaming or studying at 2am on a weekday night, 18-year-old Sachin Nagappan is doing a TikTok livestream.
He is not dancing or creating humorous content but selling household products — ranging from instant coffee to laundry pods.
The polytechnic student runs e-commerce business SGBestDeal with his mother, Ramya Manickam, 44.
When they started during the Covid-19 circuit breaker period in 2020, they sold their items through various e-commerce platforms. But now sales from livestreams on TikTok bring in the most orders — averaging up to 1,500 a month.
“At first we were worried because our items are not very attractive to the younger crowd, but we put a fun twist to it so they actually find it interesting,” said Mr Sachin. In March this year, 50,000 viewers watched him peddling coloured laundry pods.
SGBestDeal’s customers are reflective of the demographic of TikTok users — mainly 18 to 35-year-olds tune in — and, in turn, many young business owners are using the platform to reach out to their peers.
There is now a boom in TikTok Shop accounts – the number of shops has increased fivefold here since October last year. Around 60 per cent of these shops do livestreams during periods like the 10.10 Shopping Sale.
In response to TODAY’s queries, TikTok said that there are more than 100,000 TikTok Shop livestreams sessions in Singapore hosted on the platform each month.
Other users ‘rooting’ for you, sellers know you by name
Unlike other social media platforms, TikTok Shop allows users to pay for purchases within the app. But payment ease aside, consumers say the main draw is the ability to watch the livestreams of shops and their products.
Users who have made purchases from a livestream said that they like the “community” element of livestreams, which includes making friends with other users, having sellers call out their names when they appear and having others weigh in on what they should buy.
Enriquez Chiara Alessandra, a 23 year-old nurse, said that she was initially worried that products bought on TikTok might arrive with items missing or that she may get scammed.
But after a positive experience buying products from a local body care shop Benew, she was hooked.
Now she even volunteers as a moderator for the company, helping to filter out inappropriate comments or putting up banners of products during livestreams.
For Frances Pek, a 24-year-old consultant, she enjoys how strangers would be “rooting for you” when you’re making purchases.
She follows a number of TikTok shops, including one that sells “blind box” collectible figurines, which means one purchases a box without knowing which character is in there and there’s an option for the seller to open your box during a livestream.
As questions about a product can be answered very quickly by a seller, consumers may feel like they are making a more informed decision before buying, said Pek.
The livestream hosts said they have built relationships with regular customers whom they recognise by their usernames.
For such customers, the sellers try to provide personalised attention like asking for feedback on their products or including gifts with purchases.
When it comes to new viewers, the hosts will try to find out their needs or tastes – for example, a particular skin condition or preference for sweet smells – to provide a personal recommendation.
For candles and skincare business Emporal founded by sisters Grace and Lena Lim, hosting livestreams offers a “one-to-one” experience for customers, who can seek their expertise, recommendations and view other customers’ comments in real time.
A ‘parasocial’ relationship
The connection between a livestream host and viewers is an example of a “parasocial” relationship, a one-sided relationship formed with a media persona, said Assistant Professor Andrew Yee of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences department at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
While similar to the relationship between celebrities and their fans, parasocial relationships on social media can be even more intimate and intense.
Watching livestreams via mobile phones can also foster a closer sense of connection between hosts and their audience, which may increase the likelihood of purchases due to the perceived endorsement from a friend, Assistant Prof Yee added.
“The mobile phone is a very personal device. We use it in very intimate places like on the bed, or even in the toilet,” he said.
“This can enhance that feeling of intimacy and connection in a very subconscious way.”
People should thus be self-aware of how they are being affected by the parasocial relationship formed, and if they are spending excessively or starting to form an unhealthy obsession with a persona, Assistant Prof Yee added.
While TikTok appeals to a younger demographic, even household products sell well as the charisma of the seller can be even more important than the product itself, said Tracy Loh, a senior lecturer of communication management at the Singapore Management University.
Things that are visually appealing thrive on such platforms, as livestreamers are able to compensate for a viewer’s inability to touch or feel a product by showing it at different angles, she added.
The science of selling on tiktok
This has been true for Aqilah Adnan, the 25-year-old founder of Benew, a brand that sells body scrubs in ball form, lip scrubs and scented moisturisers.
During her livestreams, which have gone for as long as five hours, she typically packs orders, talks about the range of the body scrubs offered and also does product demonstrations.
As viewers are not able to smell her products, Aqilah tries to give as detailed a description of the scents as possible on the livestreams.
Some viewers tune in simply because they find it relaxing and have told her that watching her pack orders has brought them autonomous sensory meridian response, a tingling sensation some people experience in response to certain sounds or visuals.
And some people are enticed by being able to watch their purchases being prepared in real time, said Grace Lim from Emporal, while customers can also take inspiration from what other people have bought.
Businesses that do sales on TikTok livestreams said that what draws viewers are not only their products, but the personality of the livestream hosts.
“Once they like you, just like with YouTube, if you like somebody you will watch them even though you’re not buying anything. We have customers who say, ‘Oh, I like to watch the way you talk’,” said Ms Ramya from SGBestDeal.
The future of commerce?
Experts believe that livestream sales are here to stay.
A study by TikTok and Boston Consulting Group released August last year found that the market value of “shoppertainment” – the blending of e-commerce and entertainment – was expected to rise to more than US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) by 2025 for the Asia Pacific region.
Combining social media and e-commerce is very intuitive, as it makes the shopping experience convenient while offering information and entertainment, said Wong King Yin, a senior lecturer in marketing at the Nanyang Technological University.
As compared to ordering something online which is minimally interactive, a livestream offers an immediacy and directness that is just like interacting with a brick-and-mortar store owner, she added.
There is also a community of thousands who can educate you on the product, in the comfort of your home, said Wong.
Experts also pointed to the lucrative market of livestream sales in China, where livestreaming is a profession and there are academies teaching topics such as how to banter with an audience and project one’s personality.
“A couple of years ago, kids might have said, ‘I want to be a YouTuber’. Now kids are saying, ‘I want to be a livestreamer’,” said Loh.