Money

Gen Z Is Making Money Opening Packages of Junk

Unboxing and shopping haul videos have existed for over a decade, but on #haultok, the excess is boundless and the ethics are murky.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
February 25, 2021, 7:37pm
A woman opens a padded shipping envelope, framed by the TikTok screen overlay
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Images from Getty
A fresh look at how young people are striking out and pursuing their independent ambitions.

“HAUL! Unbox parcels with me,” reads the caption on one of Mira Al-Momani’s recent TikToks. In the attached video, Al-Momani, who’s 23, sits on a bed and opens a handful of purses, face masks, and frilly gloves, holding each item up to the camera. A big, brown cardboard shipping box sits slightly out of view in the bottom corner. The video has tens of thousands more views than other, non-haul videos on Al-Momani’s page, a testament to the almost guaranteed virality and endless appeal of #haultok. 

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As Al-Momani told VICE, her handful of haul videos has outperformed all the other content on her small but growing profile. In less than two months, Al-Momani has gone from zero to over 11,000 followers, most of whom found her through her haul videos. Before she posted any hauls, Al-Momani’s TikToks got an average of 1,500–2,000 views; by comparison, her second haul got more than 20,000, and another recent haul has 53,000 and climbing. “I made my first TikTok haul with just some pieces I got from small brands, and the engagement was really high,” she said. “It got lots of plays, lots of likes, and that’s when I started to realize, ok, this is how I can get more brands noticed and seen. So I started making more.” 

Al-Momani has worked with small, sustainable brands on her Instagram page for about a year, but only just started posting TikTok hauls in January. Since then, both her Instagram and TikTok followings have grown exponentially (her Instagram is now averaging about 1,000–2,000 new followers per week), something she credits completely to her handful of hauls. And she’s gone from getting messages from small brands, hoping to be featured on her Instagram page, from once or twice a week to an average of four times a day, now all asking to be featured in a TikTok haul. 

“Obviously people know there is the potential for a TikTok to be seen by the masses,” Al-Momani said, summarizing the app’s mercurial algorithm. “Whereas on Instagram, it’s far more limited. It’s worth the gamble [of sending a gift to someone] if there’s a chance that seven million people could see your piece.” 

Hauls and unboxings have been popular on YouTube for over a decade. There was an initial smattering of trend reports about the new phenomenon of hauls in 2010. At the time, Slate characterized the videos as “a girly version of the online video phenomenon in which mostly young men feverishly dismantle the newest electronics.” The same themes that ran through YouTube hauls in the aughts are still present in haul Tok: Hauls are still mostly filmed by young women and primarily feature big-box retailers and brands like Target, Amazon, Ulta, and Zara.

But, like everything else about TikTok, haul Tok is the same hauls we’re used to seeing, turned up to 11. It’s not uncommon for people to start separate, second accounts just for hauls. It’s not hard to see why. Adding #haul, #unboxing, or #haultok is seemingly a huge boon to the amount of traffic a given TikTok receives. Even profiles with fewer than 2,000 followers, like @badbsydhauls, can get upwards of 30,000 views from #haultok. And the demand for haul content is unquenchable: One unboxing video inevitably leads to commenters asking for a try-on haul, in which the original poster then models all the clothes or jewelry they already showed off. Or, as was recently the case on one of @badbsydhauls’s TikToks showing off sweaters she bought for her cat, can even lead to commenters demanding cat try-on hauls. 

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Rather than a single big shopping bag, prominent haul Tokkers show off rooms filled with piles and piles of padded envelopes and shipping boxes. Darcy McQueeny, a 19-year-old haul TikTokker with more than half a million followers, commonly breaks huge hauls into several videos, which is not only a testament to the amount of stuff she receives, but a successful tactic for maximizing the amount of money she can make off of TikTok views. Brooke Anderson, the largest haul account on TikTok with over one million followers, recently started carrying her packages of piles around in a USPS box, which she said her postal carrier just gave to her, since she gets such a large volume of packages every day. Anderson’s haul videos show her opening the typical haul stuff: hordes of inexpensive jewelry (rings, in particular), inexpensive workout clothes, oversized graphic sweatshirts, and various doodads and gadgets from Amazon. 

The excess doesn’t end with the amount of stuff being hauled. There’s also now a lot more money to be made from regularly posting hauls, thanks to an increase in affiliate and influencer programs and TikTok’s illusive Creator Fund. A 2010 New York Times story reported that a popular YouTube hauler at the time, Melissa Rose Ponce de Leon, earned about $1,000 per month for her haul videos, via YouTube’s partner program. By comparison, TubeFilter recently reported that prolific, popular TikTokkers earn between $100,000–$200,000 per year from the app’s Creator Fund.

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While the details around how much money people make from the TikTok Creator Fund—a $200 million fund that’s divvied up among popular creators (with at least 10,000 followers) who apply—are opaque and seem to vary from person to person, TubeFilter recently reported that most influencers say they make between two to four cents per 1,000 views, which would scale to about $20 for a TikTok with half a million views. 

That’s to say nothing of affiliate pay. Amazon launched an Influencer Program in 2017 and, though a description on the program’s page doesn’t mention TikTok as an eligible social media platform, plenty of TikTokkers on haulTok have Amazon affiliate storefronts linked in their bios. The Influencer Program gives participants a higher commission on products than the regular affiliate program, but requires a separate application and approval. Anderson, whose haul account is heavy on Amazon and was born of Amazon hauls in October 2020, has an Amazon storefront linked in her TikTok and Instagram bios, and, according to a link on her storefront, earns money on purchases made through the page as part of the Influencer Program. 

It’s unclear how much money Anderson makes from her haul account—she recently hit one million followers, and her hauls average anywhere between 60,000–350,000 views—but she claimed in a recent TikTok that it was enough for her to quit her day job to film TikTok hauls full time. (Though VICE was able to reach Anderson, she stopped responding to repeated interview requests.) 

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When we spoke, Al-Momani was in the midst of trying to figure out what she can and should charge for brand content on her Instagram and TikTok accounts. She’s not only gotten more gifts from brands since she started posting hauls, but she’s also gotten her first-ever requests for paid posts. “People have been asking what my rates are, and I just have no idea; no one really talks about it,” she said. “I recently spoke to someone else that I connected with on Instagram and who does TikTok as well, and she said to multiply the number of followers you have by 0.025.” 

Aside from the recent paid offers from brands, Al-Momani hasn’t started earning money from TikTok and has a day job that she said she’s unlikely to ever leave to be a full-time influencer, should the chance arise. She doesn’t trust the app’s stability or continued relevance, and said quitting her job to do TikTok feels like it would go against everything she’d been taught about finances. 

For Al-Momani, the ethics of haul Tok are murky. She likes the spotlight she can shine on small, sustainable brands, but that focus is completely at odds with the ethos of the rest of haul Tok. “I know the best way to promote these brands is by doing a haul but that also goes against my idea of trying to slow down consumption,” she said. TikTok’s haul appetite is incredibly skewed toward the biggest deals and cheapest finds. Most haulers feature brands and retailers that are cheap and accessible to TikTok’s young audience—think Princess Polly, Shein, Zara, Pacsun, Amazon, and even Dollar Tree. In a recent TikTok explaining how she became a full-time hauler, Anderson claims to feature “something cool or trendy in every video, because then there will be more shares and more comments,” a tactic that seems to work. Almost all of her haul Toks are filled with comments asking where certain things are from or complaining that linked items are already sold out. 

Besides Amazon, Anderson also regularly posts guides to finding dupes on DHGate, a Chinese e-commerce site that proliferates in knockoff designer products. Anderson has occasionally featured small brands, but there’s much more money to be made from big retailers and especially from Amazon, given her storefront. 

Al-Momani posts other, non-haul content on her page—TikToks showing a series of outfits from sustainable brands, her ring collection, etc.—but said the hauls take by far the least amount of time to film and consistently outperform. “Haul and unboxing videos just do so much better than a video of the exact same content, but already unboxed,” she said. “It does make me question the whole app, because it seems like they just want us to spend money  and get advertising deals and paid promotions through TikTok. It’s just perpetuating consumption.” 

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