Retail Lowdown

Anatomy of a Retail Trend: How social influence has shaped the retail consumer and accelerated in the age of TikTok

TikTok’s meteoric rise during the pandemic — with its highly engaging and “viral” videos — even further accelerated changes in how consumers are influenced and how trends are sourced across essential and non-essential retail categories.
Elizabeth Lafontaine
Chief Retail Analyst, Retail Leader
Elizabeth Lafontaine

Download a PDF version of this month's report at the bottom of the article.

Let's set the scene...

Retailers, for many years, were the trendsetters and tastemakers for consumers, telling them what they needed to buy and when they needed to buy it. Trends would cascade down through retail chains to consumers for multiple categories, such as food, clothing, technology and others. Think about it this way: When consumers walked into retail locations, anything deemed noteworthy by retailers would be merchandised most prominently, indicating to consumers that those products were important and worth purchasing.


The anatomy of how a retail trend comes to market and influences consumers looks vastly different today than it did a decade ago, let alone compared to last century.

Over time, the balance of power shifted among brands, retailers and consumers. This partly occurred because consumers directly began to influence each other on what to buy, how to dress and what to cook. Social influence used to come from one’s family, neighbors, coworkers or those in similar social groups or organizations. Now, social influence emanates from far beyond a consumer's immediate inner circle, through social media platforms, reaching around the globe and across socioeconomic groups. If we apply this equation of social influence to the retail industry, it’s clear that consumers are now in the driver’s seat of trend creation and adoption, and retailers and brands are now fulfilling those needs and desires.


In recent decades, social media in particular has accelerated a trend’s ability to reach audiences worldwide quickly. While retail trends used to be thought of as “trickle down” from brands and through retailers, now they can be sourced from truly anywhere and anyone. In recent years, TikTok’s meteoric rise during the pandemic — with its highly engaging and “viral” videos — even further accelerated changes in how consumers are influenced and how trends are sourced across essential and non-essential retail categories.

So, what truly makes up a retail trend in 2023? And, how do retailers and brands adequately predict, manage and analyze these trends as they pertain to their core consumers and core business functions? By looking at various viral retail products, recipes and trends originating from TikTok — and their short-term and long-term impacts on consumer behavior and retailers — brands can better anticipate and react to the new, more dynamic formation of retail trends today.

TikTok’s rise to fame


In the age of social media, countless forays developed into bridging the gap between social influence and consumer spending. But the rise of TikTok since before the pandemic has shifted how consumers source and consume content. Even TikTok’s ability to influence and spur trends has shifted dramatically during the past 3 years. If you think back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when dance choreography and performances were the most popular output on the platform, it’s come a long way.

TikTok, at its core, allows users to share information and entertain via a short format video. Users of the app post about anything; dancing, applying makeup, shopping, cooking, travel, tips and tricks, or simply talking to camera. As of October 2022, the U.S. had a TikTok audience of 109 million, or just around a third of the U.S. population, according to Statista.

Short-format videos, the medium used within TikTok, has also become the preferred vehicle for disseminating information and influencing others. According to the influencer brand platform LTK, 66% of consumers prefer watching short-format videos over looking at still images on social media. LTK also noted that consumers like short-form videos because they demonstrate products in use, are more realistic and highlight products from multiple angles.

TikTok’s influence can be felt far beyond the platform itself. Consumers often use social media as a search tool when sourcing product information or for ideation before making a purchase, and TikTok users are no exception. According to Statista, TikTok is the third leading platform for consumers, who begin their shopping research online, behind Google and Amazon and ahead of Instagram. Additionally, TikTok is preferred by 5% of respondents, which is a lot for a social network.

So, with TikTok’s star still rising, and its impact on the retail industry clear, what can grocery, drug store and convenience retailers and brands learn from trends that originate on TikTok and go viral racking up millions of views?

Looking into four viral trends — some of which began more than two years ago and some that started as recently as 2022 — brands can begin to understand what trends stick with consumers and how they might begin to both plan for them and react to them.


One of the most well known instances of TikTok virality began in January 2021 with the recipe for a baked pasta dish using feta cheese. Home cooks could simply place a block of feta in a baking dish with cherry tomatoes, garlic and olive oil and bake, add in cooked pasta and toss to create a full entrée. Simple in its preparation coupled with few ingredients required to make, this dish had all the elements needed to go viral on a platform like TikTok.

According to TikTok, as of February 2023, the hashtag #fetapasta has 1.2 billion views on the platform. Looking at Google Trends searches for Feta Pasta over time, an exponential growth spike occurred in late January 2021, with searches tapering off over time to a slightly elevated level compared to the base by that summer. According to Meltwater’s Audience Insights, those who engaged with feta pasta across online channels and other social media platforms tend to be women, ages 25-34, and fall into the middle or upper-middle class.


What was the outcome of this trend, besides word of mouth and views? From a grocery sector perspective, demand for feta cheese skyrocketed. Not just for all feta cheese, but the singular block. According to an article published in the New York Times later in February 2021, citing grocer Harris Teeter, demand for feta cheese jumped up 200%. With unsustainable demand for a fresh product like feta, many retailers who sell groceries quickly found themselves out of stock by March 2021.

On the other hand, with a specialty fresh grocery item, it isn’t necessarily wise to try and order extra through the supply chain to meet the crushing demand. The media frenzy around this trend also highlights the power and reach of the platform and its trends. These viral sensations move far beyond the phone screen and into popular culture at lightning speed.

For consumers, jumping on the bandwagon of this trend allows them to be part of the social conversation. Making and eating the dish creates a bond and sense of belonging with others, and creating new variations off of the original recipe continues the conversation long after the initial trend fades.



More than a year after the launch of the feta pasta craze, in May 2022 a new recipe found its way into every corner of TikTok and the internet. This time though, the recipe wasn’t so simple. The recipe for a seemingly easy Italian sub, dubbed the grinder sandwich on TikTok, requires 21 ingredients — from cold cuts to mayonnaise to banana peppers. On top of the underlying complexity of the recipe itself, according to Insider, the originating account only had 70 followers at the time the video was first published.

According to TikTok as of February 2023, the hashtag #grindersandwich has 156.6 million views at less than one year old. 

Based on Google Trends, searches began to increase in April 2022, reaching their peak in May 2022, but remained at that elevated level until September 2022. According to Meltwater’s social listening data, in 2022 the hashtag and keywords had a total engagement across other platforms and sites of 5.59 million. Meltwater’s data also shows that Twitter engagement peaked around the same time as Google searches, indicating that the trend was pervasive outside of the TikTok platform. This trend may not have seen quite as much initial fanfare as the feta pasta recipe, but it appears to have had longer staying power with consumers.

Some of the impacts of this particular viral trend might be less obvious, but are significant in their own right. The term “grinder” is a regional term originating in New England, but today the term is better understood nationwide thanks to the social media success. Many news and lifestyle outlets began to publish recipes online for the sandwich last spring, and consumers posted grocery hauls of themselves sourcing each of the 21 ingredients.

What are the true implications of a TikTok trend of this magnitude? Grocery chains could begin to merchandise ingredients together, promote items together or call them out in advertising. Fast casual and other restaurant chains could feature viral recipes as limited time specials for consumers who don’t want to prepare them at home. Brands in adjacent categories like chips could play into these trends as well to promote food pairings. Leaning into these trends, when not faced with supply chain constraints, can lead to limitless opportunities for brands.

apps on phone


The next trend is much more product focused, and based on the hashtag may cause some confusion. The Stanley Cup is a prize given to the team that wins the world championship in the National Hockey League. But recently it’s also become the viral title given to a drink tumbler from the brand Stanley, more specifically the Stanley Quencher H2.O FlowState 40 ounce.

The rise of the “Stanley Cup” began in 2022, and its popularity began in Utah with Mormon consumers who would use the cup to keep their beverages cold. Consumers featuring the cup in their videos began to gain momentum over time, and its design features that allow it to fit into cupholders in vehicles won over many consumers.

mobile shopping

The Stanley Quencher is another product that has won over consumers in the ever popular portable beverageware category that used to be dominated by HydroFlash and Yeti. According to The NPD Group, the category grew 20% for the 12 months ending May 2022 compared to 2021. And tumblers, which Stanley falls into, accounts for 35% of the total unit volume.

What’s fascinating about this particular TikTok creation is that it may not yet have reached its peak. According to TikTok as of February 2023, the hashtag #stanleycups has 31.1 million views and #stanleytumbler 150.1 million views; it should also be said that hashtag #stanleycup itself does also include some of the Stanley beverageware posts and stands at 3.1 billion views.

Looking at Google Trends, the peak in searches occurred the week of Christmas 2022, which coincided with users posting their holiday gift “hauls.” The Quencher is frequently out of stock on Stanley’s e-commerce site and is routinely sold out at Target stores and online.

Consumers finding products that fit their needs today is one of the many wonders of TikTok. Looking at the Stanley example from the point of a retail trend, it’s less about a product going viral and more about product discovery among consumers who otherwise might never have engaged with the item or brand. This cup in particular drives that impulse purchasing we as an industry so desperately want to replicate in online channels; perhaps social platforms might be the right resource to tap into.

influencer shopping


The final viral trend to uncover isn’t necessarily about a product itself, but the trends it creates in its absence. The educational nature of TikTok helps consumers source new ideas or product alternatives from within the community of users. Charlotte Tilbury is a prestige beauty brand out of the U.K. with products that have taken the make-up industry by storm. With popular products, such as Hollywood Flawless Filter, PillowTalk Lip Liner and Contour Wands, this brand has cemented its dominance with the beauty consumer. According to Statista, in 2021 the brand grew by almost 25% to $225 million in sales.

With the popularity of the brand rising, it’s created two issues for consumers; prices are high and demand is also high. Must-have items, such as the Hollywood Flawless Filter, are routinely out of stock across the retail landscape and retail much higher than mass or drug store beauty products. Consumers looking for cheaper or more readily available alternatives can easily turn to TikTok, where creators discuss “dupes” or products that are similar to the original.


Dupes have become a big trending category on the platform and one that generates a large amount of product demand. According to TikTok as of February 2023, the hashtag

#charlottetilburydupe has 163.5 million views. Through Google Trends, a spike in searches occurred in July 2022 in particular, when a dupe for the Hollywood Flawless Filter from e.l.f cosmetics, a mass beauty brand, launched and retailed for one-third of the price of the original Charlotte Tilbury item.

Consumer demand for these viral trends crosses price bands, and often, products that are more accessible to all reach a wider audience.

Turning trends into sales

After reviewing four different viral trends created and disseminated by TikTok, the question remains: What can retailers and brands do to capture this newfound demand and win with consumers? As evidenced by the dive into each specific hashtag, each trend behaves differently with the platform audience, and a one-size-fits-all approach to this new form of retail trends doesn’t work. The virality of TikTok retail trends presents an obstacle for traditional retail; these trends tend to pop-up seemingly overnight and burn out incredibly quickly. With that type of trend curve, it doesn’t leave traditional retail sectors like grocery, drug store, and general merchandise the ability to chase trends successfully.


Here are some ways that the retail industry, most particularly essential retail, can harness the power of TikTok to drive demand and consumer loyalty:

  • Blockchain: The traditional supply chain of the retail industry came under fire during the pandemic, but viral trends also expose the long lead times for products to hit shelves. As we saw with the feta pasta or Stanley tumblers, retailers often cannot chase into trending items easily. Retailers need to save more to be ready to buy trending items if supply is available, but be careful to not inject too much supply of any one product into the supply chain. Blockchain and other technologies could provide increased visibility into the flow of products and availability across brands and sectors, which is a huge opportunity for the industry holistically to better prepare and execute against fast-moving retail trends. For further reading:
  • Social listening: Understanding and reading trends before they hit the viral stage of the trend curve is another necessity in preparing to meet consumer demand at retail. That’s not to say that everyone needs a dedicated TikTok expert on staff, but social listening tools are beneficial in measuring consumer sentiment, news relevance and conversations on competing social networks. Social listening keeps retailers in the conversations online and may give them a longer lead time before product sales skyrocket.
looking at phones
  • Merchandising: As mentioned in the grinder sandwich case study, some viral retail trends aren’t focused on one product, but on a recipe or compilation of items. In-store assortment planning, visual merchandising and marketing are key in communicating to consumers that the items are available and curated directly for consumers. Consumers still value convenience when shopping grocery, drug store and convenience retailers, and that curation of trending products makes the shopping experience more efficient and ultimately more effective in building loyalty.
  • Boomerang: One fascinating update to the quick burn of TikTok trends is the boomerang effect as trends age. Anecdotally, an uptick in conversation around the feta pasta has occurred during the past few months with consumers once again returning to the recipe. Even if retail misses the opportunity to lean into trends during the initial growth phase, opportunities exist to jump on additional waves of consumer behavior changes.
  • TikTok Shop: In October 2022, TikTok announced its intention to bring its e-commerce platform, TikTok shop, stateside. The feature currently is offered in Asian and European markets, but it would allow TikTok to control some of the path to purchase for users on the app. Understanding and preparing for this change is key for retailers and brands to ensure they’re at the forefront of TikTok’s e-commerce strategy. 

Download a PDF of Retail Leader Pro's February 2022 Retail Lowdown  here.

Elizabeth Lafontaine

About the Author

Elizabeth Lafontaine is the Chief Retail Analyst at Retail Leader Pro. Backed by nearly a decade of retail experience, she uncovers emerging trends in consumer behavior to help retailers and brands tap into new insights and create winning strategies.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds