While millennials are decluttering, Gen Z has been busy amassing stacks and stacks of stuff. Born between 1997 and 2012, my generation was the first to grow up with the haul video. We birthed (and basked in) cluttercore and have completely shucked off the restrictive world of Marie Kondo minimalism that our elders embraced with open arms. But how did a generation that cares so deeply about sustainability come to embrace such a lush form of materialism?
“I think us growing up being perpetually online since the day we were born makes us a little bit more amenable to receiving advertising in different forms,” says Ellyn Briggs, a brands and marketing reporter at Morning Consult who’s worked on a variety of reports on the behavior of Zoomer consumers. One such report breaks down which internet content is getting us to open our wallets most often: the haul video. “What works best, and again what our research shows, is that haul videos, get-ready-with-me [videos], any advertising as entertainment—rather than an actor dancing in a highly produced high gloss advertisement—we tend to respond better to something that feels natural and native to the environment.”
Haul videos began during YouTube’s infancy in 2008, when even the eldest Zoomers amongst us had not yet reached their teen years. As such, in the course of our digitized lives, we’ve watched the form mature—and although it certainly influenced consumer behavior during its nascent stages, the art of the haul fully blossomed on TikTok.
@markfromars Ora starò sempre a casa perche ho speso troppo #ikea #ikeahaul #fyp #perte #shopping #shoppinghaul #haul #furniture ♬ c!ao (feat. Rondodasosa) - thasup
“On YouTube, you have to click on something, that takes you somewhere else, and what do you do next? Obviously, on a TikTok session you just swipe through 200 or 300 or even more videos—that’s just the natural form of viewing. It sped up the entire process,” says Marcus Bösch, the researcher and consultant behind the newsletter Understanding TikTok. “TikTok is like a slot machine. You go on and the next video might be more interesting than the previous one.”
Marcus’s succinct definition of the appeal of TikTok closely mirrors what Wendy A. Woloson, author of Crap: A Cheap History of America and a professor at Rutgers University, considers one of the most important elements of consumer interest across time: the allure of novelty. “The idea of constant change and churn…of course, you can do that a lot more easily if things are cheap,” Wendy explains. “That’s one of the reasons why we like stuff like the dollar store as much as we hate it, and why we love fast fashion. In both cases, we don’t have to be faithful to any one object for any amount of time and we can keep recreating our material world in our spaces.”
Haul videos, rather than the mere act of shopping for oneself, compound the thrill of novelty. On a platform like TikTok, a user may not even be seeking a haul video, and they likely don’t recognize the person who uploaded the video either, so the video becomes a sort of nesting doll of surprise, each aspect an unknown variable.
In Crap, Wendy writes about novelty in the context of 19th-century five and dime stores. When they were still new, customers were attracted to five and dimes not because they could expect quality wares (it quickly became apparent that they could not), but because they could expect to find something they’d never seen before. Amazon and its endless supply of new discoveries—small “life hack” enabling devices, simple never-before-seen organizational tools, or even off-brand stuffed animals—no doubt scratch this same novelty itch. Thrift shopping does too—you’re unlikely to spot two items exactly alike in a Goodwill or Salvation Army and you’re not often met by an item that is entirely familiar. Naturally, Amazon and thrift hauls dominate TikTok.
With all of this thrill, and the amount of time us Zoomers spend staring at social media on average, it’s easy to see why, en masse, the delight of the haul video would have a huge influence on our generation’s behavior as consumers. These videos aren’t just peddling individual products so much as presenting and cosigning a level of consumption that might otherwise induce guilt in the thrill-seeking viewer. “Gen Z has an appetite for buying a lot of stuff, which in many ways contradicts our stated concerns about climate change,” Ellyn says. “We’re a very contradictory generation.”
Rather than being stuck in a constant cycle of accumulation and purging, Zoomers seem to accept the constant accrual as natural. What one generation or onlooker may deem as hoarding, many Zoomers are willing to rebrand as admirable. In a life of constant accumulation and little purging, the collector needn’t deal with the guilt or other negative emotions associated with regularly discarding yesterday’s cheap thrills. The argument could be made, even, that in a home filled with stuff, old items’ “novelty factor” can recharge while hidden beneath other belongings, creating another round of excitement from something simple.
The allure of the haul video comes deeper still from an especially isolated generation’s desire to connect with one another. For both the haul video creator and its viewer, the video creates meaning out of what could otherwise be any other purchase. Across cities, states, and countries, the haul, get-ready-with-me, and unboxing videos promote products, but their potency comes from how personal they feel; these are not your run-of-the-mill celebrity endorsements. If and when one may not have people in their immediate community who connect over a shared love of makeup, thrifting, or even organization, social media creates a space to congregate with those who do. “Part of it is the idea of group belonging. ‘I want to be just like these influencers, but also I want to identify myself as being a member of the group of people who follow these influencers.’ People do that through the things that they consume,” Wendy says.
@alxcext My first ever home/furniture haul!! What we found at the flea market ❤️🔥 im obssessed with warm colours, wood, mid century modern styling!! #interiordesign #homedecor #vintagehaul #thrifting #thrifthaul #midcenturymodern ♬ Deep house - TOKYO Lonesome Blue
“I have tons of friends on TikTok and whenever we have a really solid haul, [we] definitely like [get] bombarded in the comments,” says Mel, who posts thrift hauls under the username @melxdivine. “There’s definitely a community of people who really connect to haul videos.” As someone who was drawn to thrifting for its eco-friendly bent, along with the affordability factor, it’s a pleasure to expose others to the joy of thrifting and encourage her audience to leave fast fashion behind.
Another factor still is the element of self-expression, rather than group norm assimilation, that hunting down the best clothes and products embraces. What sticks out most about cluttercore— the trend of interiors that are dense with stuff though still livable—and Zoomer interiors in general is the treatment of regular consumer objects as decoration. Though this has certainly been practiced by other generations, it has never been so celebrated as an aesthetic pursuit as opposed to a makeshift solution when these items are all that one might have the cash for.
As mentioned earlier, it’s also a massive departure from the sparse white rooms that millennials spent a similar period of their lives aspiring toward. The behavior of Gen Z is as vast as any other, and there’s no doubt that certain subsets have clutched onto minimalism tightly, leading to new ways of describing simplicity, like “the clean girl aesthetic.” As true as this is, box after box after box, Zoomers feel like we’re maturing into a hoarder generation.
“I feel like my collections are kind of like a diary,” says Dani Klarić, a Gen Z interior decorator who shares thrift hauls and unboxings to her two million followers on TikTok. “It’s a reminder of what I was going through when I bought it.” Whether as a reflection of oneself or one’s community, Zoomers the world over are finding meaning in stuff and the hauls that document it.