When 14-year-old Bethany Mota gets back from the mall, she eagerly models her latest finds for friends and family.
And for tens of thousands more on YouTube.
The rising high school sophomore from Los Banos, Calif., is a "hauler," a term for tech-savvy young fashionistas who show off their purchases, or hauls, in homemade videos that they post online.
Bethany started hauling about a year ago and now has more than 48,000 YouTube subscribers who tune in to watch her show off her favorite back-to-school outfits ("you don't want to wear heels and stuff, obviously"), big-volume mascara ("this is like my new obsession") and perfumes ("summer in a bottle right here!").
"You get to connect with girls around the world, and that's what reeled me in," said the doe-eyed, fresh-faced teen, who could pass for Kim Kardashian's younger sister. "YouTube videos, they're more personal and more real than a commercial on TV."
Hauling has become an Internet phenomenon over the last year or so, fueled by a mix of exhibitionism and voyeurism. As the shop-and-tell trend has grown, so has the influence of haulers themselves, usually teen girls or young women. A successful video can garner hundreds of thousands of views, which has boosted some haulers into so-called beauty gurus with huge fan bases.
Major retailers are watching too. Several, including JCPenney and Marshalls, have begun reaching out to haulers, giving them free merchandise in the hopes that the girls will make haul videos in which they endorse the products. Others, such as Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters, are holding haul video contests and offering gift cards and other prizes for the best hauls.
"The bottom line is: It's marketing for less," said Eli Portnoy, a marketing expert and chief brand strategist of the Portnoy Group. "What better way to reach your customers than from what seems to be independent voices saying 'I love these products and I love these stores'? Instead of you promoting your products, they're doing it for you."
Bethany is one of them. In June, JCPenney flew her and five other haulers from around the country to Texas and gave each girl gift cards worth $1,000 to shop the department store's back-to-school selection.
After the shopping spree, the girls were required to record their own haul videos, which JCPenney posted on its website and on Facebook and YouTube.
"It's the perfect marriage of two of Gen Y's favorite things: technology and shopping," said Mike Boylson, chief marketing officer at JCPenney. "Marketers have to realize that they're truly not in control. More and more, this idea of consumers as publishers is huge."
At the heart of the trend is the girls' bubbly charm, attractive looks and somewhat ditzy personalities.
"It's real girls that like fashion, rather than experts telling people what to wear," said Audrey Kitching, a fashion writer and model from Hollywood who was one of the haulers chosen by JCPenney. "It's more organic and not somebody who's getting paid to say 'wear this' or 'wear that.' "
In a recent haul video about nail polish, Bethany begins with: "Hey, guys! So, first off, please excuse the hair. It's, like, really crazy." And in her seven-minute, 33-second video about her JCPenney haul, she uses the word "cute" 27 times — as in: "I also got this really cute blue T-shirt and it has some studded rhinestones on the shoulders. I think that's so, so cute!"
As often as three times a week, Bethany sets up a video camera from her Paris-themed bedroom and records herself showing off her latest purchases. It takes about a day to film and edit a video, which she posts on YouTube under the user name Macbarbie07.
Her most-watched haul — on spring and summer fashions — has attracted more than 96,000 views.
To protect her safety, Bethany's parents monitor her YouTube channel and comments, watch her videos and forbid her from giving out personal information online. Other than that, they said they don't mind their daughter posing in flirty outfits for virtual strangers.
"There's never closed doors or anything like that," said her mother, Tammy Mota. "I've never been concerned. I know how careful she is, and if anything suspicious comes, or someone tries to talk to her, she'll never do it."
Critics have decried the haul sensation as an indulgent display of excess by spoiled teenagers bragging about their latest splurges. Others say haul videos help teens do what they've always done — express themselves and share shopping finds with their girlfriends — but on a global scale.
Hauling is one of the fastest-growing categories on YouTube, with more than 200,000 videos, said Anna Richardson, a spokeswoman for the website. And making videos can be lucrative: Haulers and other users who join YouTube's "partner" program can get a cut of the profits from ads that run with their videos.
Hauling is, in fact, big business. Two of the most famous haulers are Elle and Blair Fowler, sisters from Tennessee who have leveraged their celebrity status on YouTube into growing empires. The girls have been featured in Seventeen and Marie Claire magazines, appeared on "Good Morning America" and hired an agent and a publicist to help field the many requests for interviews, product reviews and appearances they receive.
That has made them among the most sought-after haulers by big-name companies. Elle, 22, and Blair, 17, were recently featured in back-to-school campaigns for Marshalls and Sears, are creating a makeup collection for Los Angeles-based Nyx Cosmetics and are teaming with Forever 21 to host a haul video contest on the cheap chic retailer's website this month.
"The brand exposure is huge," said Kirstin Nagle, marketing manager at L.A.-based Forever 21. "That's what makes it exciting for us."
Retail executives acknowledged that by courting haulers, they're shifting some marketing power to consumers — and to their opinions, both good and bad.
"It's a two-edged sword — it works both ways," said JCPenney's Boylson. "There's nowhere to hide. You can't control what they say or do, and you really have to learn to roll with it."
These days, the department store chain has employees who monitor social media sites for comments on JCPenney's merchandise; if the opinions are overwhelmingly negative the company may take action to improve the item or stop stocking it, he said.
But as retailers increasingly get involved with haulers, especially as they lavish free swag and even compensation for videos, the line between a third-party review and paid advertising is becoming blurred. Some industry experts have warned that viewers could become disillusioned with haulers if they come across as shills for big-name corporations.
Bethany, for instance, has received free Rimmel cosmetics and Sigma makeup brushes, plus a hair dryer from beauty website Folica.com. Some of the companies gave her extra products to give to her viewers.
She said that about 90% of her reviews are positive but said that the vast majority of her videos are based on items she purchased on her own and that she has never accepted money from a retailer for making a video. When she does receive freebies, she discloses them under Federal Trade Commission rules.
"I don't say yes to every company because I don't want to recommend a product to my viewers if I don't believe in it," she said. "I don't want to lie to my subscribers, so I'm really honest about my reviews and stuff."