Most YouTube videos in the genre of “Come Thrift With Me” begin the same way: A vlogger, usually a young and stylish woman, sits in a car. She speaks directly into a camera while idling in the parking lot of her local thrift store. She may be accompanied by her partner, or best friend, or mother, or, depending on her numbers, a fashion influencer. She will begin by talking about her day, or something that happened to her over the weekend—some ordinary observation usually written in a sentence fragment and texted to a close friend. But on YouTube, viewers are her close friends, she’ll often address fans as the casually familiar “you guys.” The introduction will take up a lot of the video—the long ritual of building intimacy before she finally enters the thrift store.
Then, she’ll dive into the aisles for potential treasures. Sometimes she’ll search for items thematically—prom dresses, wedding gowns, Urban Outfitter dupes (shorthand for “duplication,” an attempt to find current trendy items for a fraction of the price), recreating looks popularized on Instagram, only shopping in the men’s section, or name brands that have returned to vogue. She might tag her videos either “mid-size,” or “plus-size.” She’ll often hide her camera in the top basket of her shopping cart, propped up by a purse producing an unflattering but authentic angle, as she pulls and discusses individual items—which she’ll later show herself trying on in the dressing room.
She will end where she began—in her car, pulling out individual pieces to showcase her clothing haul, or she might take her items back home and show them off underneath a brilliant ring light, giving her vlogs a polished appearance. Sometimes she’ll style pieces to educate viewers on how to take seemingly archaic items and make them current. The handiest vloggers will alter their clothing to make them appear more stylish (called “thrift flipping”)—like cutting a ragged men’s collared shirt to turn it into a cute crop top, or tailoring a grandma garment and removing the shoulder pads to make it more contemporary.
Then, the video will end, and she’ll promise a new “Come Thrift With Me” vlog, coming soon.
Thrift videos are, for style bloggers, making lemonade out of lemons: for teenagers with creative impulses, they are a way to transform the seemingly mundane act of shopping at a Goodwill into something creative. By filming the search, thrifting becomes contemporary social media fodder that doesn’t necessarily guarantee social media fame—there are far too many people filming these kinds of vlogs at varying levels of expertise; it’s a democratizing format—but they do allow for active and consistent sharing that goes beyond the now-vintage format of just sitting in front of a camera and telling a story. (Those vlogs, for the olds reading this, are simply called “STORYTIME.”)
I’ve become obsessed with thrifting videos recently, though they’ve been around for a few years and continue to grow in popularity. If their viewership demographic directly reflects the kind of women who create them, I’m likely an older minority. But unlike the majority of popular YouTube vlog genres, I’ve found thrift vlogs are easy to identify with despite my age. As someone who enjoys thrifting, I have the language for it. As someone who watches a lot of YouTube, thrift videos are engaging because they are a combination of other popular vlog types, specifically ASMR, mukbangs, and unboxing videos.
For those who don’t attempt to wash out the sound of plastic hangers dragging across metal racks, clanking against one another, or the soft sounds of a rolling shopping cart along a warehouse floor, or the incomprehensible chatter of nearby costumers with royalty-free music in their vlog, there’s almost an ASMR-like quality. That the vlogger is often whispering into the camera, nearly mimicking the dry sound of ASMR.
Like mukbangs, or food shows—also known as muk-bang or meokbang, a type of YouTube video where the vlogger sits directly in front of the camera and eats large portions of food, first popularized in South Korea in 2010—watching someone thrift is inherently voyeuristic. The desire to watch someone eat on camera varies: it can be sexual, or it can be PG entertainment, but it can also be gratifying for the lonely. As in the popular “Eat With Me” subgenre of mukbang videos, enticing the viewer to eat while watching the vlogger gives them the virtual sensation of not dining alone. Thrift videos have the same sort of resonance. There’s a peculiar pleasure in watching someone do something so mundane: it’s as superficial and simplistic as watching reality television.
And like unboxing videos—another popular form of YouTube video where the vlogger sits directly in front of the camera and opens a box which the viewer (and sometimes the YouTuber herself) has no idea what the contents inside are—thrift videos posses an element of surprise. Those who enjoy thrifting know the thrill of the hunt. It’s antiquing for the young and fashionable, an exercise in finding vintage goods without the commitment of acquiring a mid-century curio cabinet. But the expectation is the same: take something old, and make it new.
In the same way, few styles of YouTube video intrigue me (or, honestly, anyone north of the college freshman-aged), I don’t expect videos beckoning viewers to “come thrift with them” to become the latest bizarre fixation for a mainstream, massive audience. I’d honestly only ever recommend them for relaxing and turning off your brain. These vlogs are gloriously anti-aspirational, entertainment through pedestrian reality. And in today’s overstimulated world, that’s enough to spark obsession.
Senior Producer: Tracy Thompson, DP: Santiago Garcia