When buyers started asking Sarah to buy empty boxes and paper shopping bags for the designer goods she sells online, she thought it was to store their stuff.
Sarah, not her real name, lives in the Philippines, and can sell up to 850 designer items a month – from leather handbags to watches and shoes – to customers mainly in the United States, Philippines, Malaysia and Macau. “Most buyers are well-known local bloggers, influencers or just aspiring models from Instagram and other sites,” she explains. She set up her business after selling beauty products in a local market as a side hustle to fund her college tuition. She saw that people buy beauty products – but they buy designer goods more frequently.
People tend to buy Hermes boxes and bags, while Pandora and Tiffany are also popular.
Then she quickly learned, after being asked by the people she was selling the items to if they could also buy branded boxes and bags, that there was a market in that, too. People tend to buy Hermes boxes and bags, while Pandora and Tiffany are also popular.
“At first I thought it was maybe to store some stuff at home, or to recycle it as a gift box for someone,” she says. “I didn’t know they used it for Instagram shoots until I saw some of them did it.”
When people order from Sarah, they put their username in the checkout section. She tracked that username back to one influencer, who at that point had 200,000 followers, posting a video on Instagram unboxing Pandora jewelry. “She’s using one of the Pandora boxes she purchased while the rest were in the background,” she says. “I’m not sure where she got the jewelry, but I’m sure those were the boxes she purchased.”
That influencer – who Sarah declines to name because of the need to continue doing business with creators – wasn’t alone. The influencer world’s worst-kept secret is that the oodles of boxes and bags they post with in glamorous photo shoots aren’t direct from Louis Vuitton’s store or the Gucci outlet. They’re bought from sites like Sarah’s, or bigger ones like Poshmark and eBay – and they’re often empty.
“Aesthetics are everything in the visual social media attention economy and this seems very much a case of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’, with influencers trying to present as having a level of economic and symbolic capital – or value – in order to attract attention,” says Kathryn Murphy, who’s studying influencers’ self-branding and authenticity at the Sheffield Hallam University, UK. “This portrays an aspirational aesthetic as popularised by the Rich Kids of Instagram trend which has seen wealthy young, often conventionally attractive, people flaunting their extravagant lifestyles and expensive material possessions on social media.”
Some of them end up making it big: one Australian Filipino influencer who was a regular customer of Sarah’s through her assistant used to purchase Hermes and Louis Vuitton boxes through her online store. Sarah followed the influencer online and was a big fan of hers, didn’t put two and two together until she found out the influencer’s assistant was the person she was sending boxes to. “She gets sponsored by the real store of those brands now, but way back then I knew she was faking her posts looking rich and being able to buy lots of branded stuff,” she explains. The influencer now has more than four million followers.
It shouldn’t surprise us that people are taking empty bags and boxes and projecting an extravagant lifestyle into them, says Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism, a New York creative agency. “Instagram acts as a social media avatar for our lives. The rich and famous take photos on private jets, [of] beautiful destinations, and shopping for expensive clothes. It’s aspirational for many,” he says. “Naturally people want to project a similar image of themselves. So they utilize social media to manufacture that identity.”
Poshmark, whose users list thousands of empty designer shopping bags and empty boxes for sale from some of the world’s biggest luxury brands, are circumspect about their contribution to the artifice of the creator economy. The site’s PR agency initially offered to help gather data with this story, over the course of nearly a week in late September and early October. When they learned the story would identify people who pretend they bought items from brands – or try to give off that impression – they said they wouldn’t be able to participate in the story. The PR declined to answer what caused the change of heart.
“Being an influencer is a permanent struggle between communicating authenticity and intimacy whilst also appearing to be effortlessly successful,” says Tama Leaver, author of a book about Instagram and academic at Curtin University, Australia. “The success conveyed by designer shopping bags doesn't require them to be full, simply that audiences imagine what could be in them.”
Leaver also thinks the idea of purchasing the bag, rather than the product, is the perfect metaphor for the strange times in which we live. “We've always filled the bags with our own desires,” he says. “Instagram is an imagination engine as much as a commercial one.”