Play It Again
When I’m on vacation, I always tell myself that I’m not going to think about business. I mean that’s the point, right?
The problem is, I tend to go shopping more often when I’m on vacation, partly because I have the time and partly because I’m doing different things and need different stuff. Visiting stores, regardless of what they sell, always brings me back to my job.
My last vacation included some golf, and a friend of mine told me about a golf shop where he had recently purchased a slightly used driver. The store sold new gear, but he said it also had the largest selection of used clubs he had ever seen, at great prices. I’m a sucker for a bargain, so I was all over it.
Now there are plenty of golf shops that sell used clubs, but it is usually just a bin that you can sort through on the off chance that there may be something you can use. This place had hundreds of clubs, and they were organized and displayed just like the new ones, nicely refurbished, and you could try them out in their virtual driving range.
A fancy new driver will set you back $400 or more, but I am way too cheap, and too much of a hacker, to even think about it. I was able to walk out of this store, on the other hand, with a slightly scuffed 2011 model for about 20 percent of that cost. Of course I also picked up a couple of new shirts, some golf balls, a glove and so forth.
Afterwards, as I was out hitting a bucket of balls with my new old driver, I got to thinking about the whole idea of buying used versus new merchandise, and how it seems so natural to me for some things but not others. I don’t even know where I got these attitudes.
Historically, the necessities of life were considered to be food, shelter and clothing, which were consequently the majority of economic activity. In the 20th century we added transportation to the list, as apparently it was no longer possible to live one’s life without moving around a lot, if only to get to work. The new necessity for the current century seems to be communication, now that people feel the need to share every thought in their heads with the rest of humanity.
“Used” food is off the table, so to speak, and communication in itself is not what you would call merchandise (that’s an issue we can discuss some other time) but the other three pillars of the economy all include the sale of both new and used inventory into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Houses other than mobile homes are not sold through a retail system, and we don’t refer to them as “used,” but most of them are.
Of the 5 million homes sold last year, more than 90 percent were what are referred to as “pre-existing,” the remainder being new construction. Personally, I have owned seven homes over the years, two of which were new. Of the five pre-existing places, three were already pre-existing at the time of the Civil War and one dated back to 1809. Although I will acknowledge that there is a certain cachet to a custom-made new home, I don’t think I was any less enthusiastic about the older ones.
There were 15 million new cars and trucks purchased last year in the U.S., at a total cost of about $400 billion. The market for used vehicles is even bigger, with 40 million units changing hands for nearly $600 billion. Unlike houses, we do have some sort of social stigma attached to used cars, and particularly the people who sell them for a living, as though there is something sketchy about them.
If memory serves me properly, I have bought 12 new cars over the years and nine used ones, in spite of my mother warning me that “You will just be buying someone else’s problems.” Sometimes the price break is too good to resist, or it’s a hard-to-find model, or it isn’t really very used. A couple of my used cars were only a few months old.
The funny thing about cars is that eventually the oldest ones are no longer considered “used,” because after 25 years they get upgraded to “classic.” The same process operates in the furniture business, where merchandise moves from new to second-hand to antique, usually over the span of 100 years. In that case, the retail outlets are pretty strictly segregated according to the three categories.
Clothing retailers are also divided distinctly into new and used, with new taking the lion’s share of a $200 billion U.S. market. Second-hand shops do a respectable business, however, especially thrift shops operated by charitable organizations. Goodwill Industries leads that segment with 2,200 stores, followed by the Salvation Army with 1,370.
There are high-end second-hand shops as well, particularly in cities like New York, where well-heeled fashionistas buy or sell last year’s designer trappings. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but somehow the idea of wearing clothes that were formerly worn by a stranger seems vaguely creepy to me.
At any rate, there are a wide variety of retailers who offer new and used merchandise side by side, whether they acquire used inventory from trade-ins or auction or whatever. A jeweler will often have a display case of “estate” jewelry, a guitar store might have a classic Gibson Les Paul up on the wall, and a gun shop will show you a 1911 model Colt 45.
In many ways I am a typical American consumer, and I love the idea of being able to trade in old products for new ones. Last year, for example, I traded in my ancient Schwinn cruiser for a fancy new hybrid bicycle, and I probably wouldn’t have bought a new bike if the store had not taken trade-ins.
Why? Well, I suppose money is the obvious answer but probably the least significant, because they didn’t give me all that much and I probably could have negotiated a better price on the new bike without the trade-in. If the money made any difference, it was probably more in principle than anything else.
I think that reducing clutter was more important to me, since I sometimes feel that my life is one long losing struggle to fight back a sea of junk. If they didn’t take my old bike, after all, what would I do with it? It certainly wouldn’t feel right to throw it out.
When you trade something in, you can congratulate yourself for your environmental stewardship. Even better, you can hope that someone who really needs that product will end up with it.
For some reason, though, I rarely see any “classic,” or “pre-loved,” or any other euphemistically styled used toys in a toy store. When I ran a Google search, the only store I found that put a real emphasis on used toys was in England.
The store claimed to be the largest toy retailer in Great Britain. Maybe they’re on to something.
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.