Indonesia’s TikTok sellers do roaring trade in hijab, handbags

China’s social media platform has more than 106.9 million adult users in Indonesia.

Oktaviana Tas Grosir, a wholesale business selling women’s handbags, does daily streams on TikTok to sell its wares [Courtesy of Regi Oktaviana]

Bali, Indonesia – Like many in his village, Inggit Pambudi and his wife Mudya Ayu earn a living making and selling headscarves.

The couple are part of the thousands of home industries in West Java’s district of Cicalengka, known as “Kampung Hijab”, or “Hijab Village”.

Cicalengka specialises in modest wear, a highly sought-after commodity in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Most of Cicalengka’s production caters to brick-and-mortar wholesale markets across the Southeast Asian country but Pambudi and his wife count on a more modern marketing strategy. As TikTok user Hijab mudy mudy, the couple sell their products in livestreams on the popular video app 24 hours a day.

“We don’t even have any physical store,” Pambudi, 25, told Al Jazeera. “When I learned that I can livestream and sell my products on TikTok, I thought that it’s a good opportunity for us.”

TikTok is wildly popular in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country with more than 275 million people. As of July, the Chinese social media platform reported 106.9 million adult users in Indonesia, making the country the app’s second-biggest market after the United States.

TikTok – initially launched as a music video platform-cum-social network – entered Indonesia in 2017. After authorities briefly banned the app over content deemed pornographic and blasphemous, it began storming the country’s lucrative e-commerce scene in 2021, following the launch of its livestreaming e-commerce function during Ramadan.

During the holy month, the app’s viewership peaks higher than usual as many Muslims stay awake into the early hours to eat their last meal of the day before fasting.

Woman holding hand bag while wearing a business suit with other bags on display on shelves behind her
Oktaviana Tas Grosir employs 10 live-streaming hosts to sell its products on TikTok [Courtesy of Regi Oktaviana]

It was during Ramadan last year that TikTok reached out to Pambudi.

“Someone contacted me; he’s like a ‘relationship manager’ for TikTok. He told me that I could do live shopping on the platform,” Pambudi said.

At the time, Pambudi was selling roughly 1,000 headscarves every month. He was not unfamiliar with the world of internet shopping. Since 2018, he had been trying out different online marketplaces to sell Hijab mudy mudy’s products, which retail from about half a cent to $3 apiece.

Live shopping, however, was uncharted territory.

“The relationship manager trained us on how to do livestreaming. From how to use the features, choosing the backgrounds, the lighting, the equipment, and what to say to customers,” Pambudi said. “The whole training took us around five months.”

With Pambudi behind the camera and Ayu on screen, the couple began with a few hours of livestreaming every day in the morning and afternoon.

However, they soon discovered that nighttime streaming brought them more sales.

“We tried going live after 8pm. That’s when people have returned from work, done their Isha (evening prayer) and usually, they’re just at home relaxing while scrolling on their phones,” Pambudi said.

“The sales were really good. People were buying. In the beginning, we finished our session by 11pm. But then we decided to continue until Fajr (morning prayer) time, and the responses were excellent.”

Pambudi said early morning before dawn is usually their peak time, with hundreds of viewers typically joining the livestream. During special events like National Online Shopping Day, viewership can jump to the thousands.

Pambudi’s business now sells up to 30,000 headscarves a month – a 30-fold rise from his pre-livestreaming days.

“I now have 10 hosts taking turns doing the livestreaming,” he said. “We have three shifts every day, eight hours each.”

Live shopping is a growing business in Indonesia.

In a recent survey by market research firm Ipsos, 71 percent of Indonesian consumers said they had participated in live shopping events, with 56 percent reporting making purchases.

For Indonesia’s nearly 65 million small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) – 98 percent of which are micro-enterprises with less than 300 million Indonesia rupiahs ($19,500) in annual sales – the trend could open doors to new customers amid a government push towards digitalisation.

About 21 million Indonesian SMBs, or 32 percent of the total, market their products at online marketplaces, according to Semuel Abrijani Pangerapan, director-general of Information and Communication Technology Applications at Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.

By 2024, the government hopes to get at least 30 million SMBs online.

A TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken January 6, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

“Digital onboarding remains a challenge for Indonesian SMBs,” Pangerapan told Al Jazeera, discussing the government’s digital literacy push in recent years.

“It is important for us to map out digital technology needs and provide the right training and facilities to accelerate digital adoption. This includes providing mentors, training modules, toolkits and apps for SMBs, which are spread across islands in Indonesia.”

TikTok hopes its recent forays into e-commerce can be just the nudge needed for the Indonesian economy’s digital transition.

“We are seeing more and more SMBs from various industries in Indonesia join TikTok and utilise the suite of commerce tools and features available in-app to promote their business,” Esme Lean, head of Small and Medium Businesses at TikTok APAC, told Al Jazeera.

“These tools help to level the playing field, even when the content creation and hosting live sessions are not initially perceived as SMB’s core strengths,” Lean said of TikTok’s “shoppertainment” approach.

Regi posing for a photo
Regi Oktaviana is one of many small business owners in Indonesia who live each day on TikTok [Courtesy of Regi Oktaviana]

From the city of Mojokerto, East Java, SMB owner Regi Oktaviana described how she had made livestreaming engaging for her viewers.

“Maintaining eye contact is a must. So, even though you’re technically talking to the camera, you must make sure that your eyes don’t wander around,” Oktaviana told Al Jazeera.

“You can make jokes during the livestream but you also need to know the ins and outs of what you’re selling, so you can answer any questions the viewers are asking.”

Like Pambudi, Oktaviana is one of the many small business owners who go live daily on TikTok.

She is the owner of Oktaviana Tas Grosir, a wholesale business selling women’s handbags. Launched in 2013, her business has grown multi-fold since she started livestreaming last year.

According to Oktaviana, her sales have increased by 50 percent since she started doing live sessions. This has incentivised her to continuously extend her streaming hours, which now reach up to 20 hours daily.

“I have 10 livestreaming hosts to help me,” said the twenty-nine-year-old entrepreneur.

“We can now sell up to 120,000 bags per month, and we went from having only two garment workshops to operating twenty-five workshops so we can fulfil our monthly shopping orders.”

Oktaviana believes her business’s growth relies on livestreaming and now devotes most of her energy to continuously improving her digital operations.

This, however, is not without challenges.

“Internet speed remains a persistent issue for us. I have changed providers three times now because, so far, we haven’t found any service available in our town that could fully accommodate our needs,” Oktaviana said.

“It is worse now that it’s rainy season in Mojokerto. Power cuts happen so regularly, interrupting our sessions. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our business but with all these technical problems, there’s only so much we can do.”

Source: Al Jazeera