Celine didn’t expect to end up haggling over second-hand clothes, and she certainly won’t be telling her book club.
- As inflation bites, the second-hand economy is booming
- Facebook Marketplace has seen a 72 per cent increase in second-hand listings in Australia in the first half of 2022
- But some are embarrassed that circumstances have forced them to buy second-hand
But desperate times have called for desperate measures — even for “solid middle class” Central Coast homeowners, with an engineer’s pay cheque and a respectable combined income.
“I would be really embarrassed if people knew,” said Celine, whose name has been changed.
“I never thought we’d be in this predicament. As middle-income earners, it really should be much easier.”
The mother of four never used to buy much second-hand, but now she constantly hunts for deals and freebies — everything from clothes and shoes, to bed linen, furniture and home improvements.
“I picked up curtain rods for free this morning, because the curtains are black with mould after all the wet,” she said.
As cost of living bites, the second-hand economy appears to be booming — and many Australians are coming to it for the first time.
Despite the economic downturn, resale platforms like Gumtree, eBay and Facebook Marketplace are reporting increased activity in some categories, as are other neighbourhood gifting and sharing groups.
Necessity and hardship appear to be leading us towards a new era of second-hand buying and selling.
Cost of living pinch ‘sharper’ than GFC
For many Australians, the pinch began some time in the past two years.
Unemployment rose with the pandemic, and then inflation went up as well. In mid-2021, inflation overtook wage growth, so that the real value of a typical worker’s pay packet declined.
It’s been declining ever since. Annual inflation is now at 5.1 per cent and growing at its fastest pace in 20 years, driven largely by fuel prices (up 35 per cent) and building materials (up 15.4 per cent).
In May, Anglicare modelling showed just how tight the pinch had become:
- A full-time minimum wage worker is left with $29 after essential weekly expenses, not including the cost of health care or utility bills
- A family of four, with two full-time minimum wage workers, has no income left after expenses
- A single parent on the minimum wage is short $195 per week, even when accessing benefits
The struggle to break even this downturn was generally harder than during the Global Financial Crisis of the late noughties, said Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers.
“It’s sharper. It’s much sharper,” she said.
“We’ve got the recession, we’ve got the pandemic, we’ve got a much greater level of insecure work than we had 10 or 15 years ago.”
What’s striking about the downturn, she said, was that families who had never accessed charity services were turning up at Anglicare depots, hoping to avoid being seen by anyone they know.
“It is now very typical to find families that are working and even two-income families who cannot make the weekly or fortnightly pay cycle,” she said.
The rise of the ‘second-hand economy’
In the past decade or so, the second-hand economy has grown enormously.
The classifieds platform Gumtree, which publishes an annual snapshot of the economy, estimates the value of second-hand goods sold in Australia almost doubled from 2011-2021.
A big reason for this was consumers wanting to avoid the waste and emissions associated with buying new, said Louise Grimmer, an online shopping expert at the University of Tasmania.
It’s also just easier to buy and sell stuff second-hand now, she added.
“Online marketplaces have really allowed for more and more consumers to buy and sell second-hand items.”
With prices going up, these marketplaces are going to be even more popular, she said.
Early figures appear to bear this out.
Facebook Marketplace has seen a 72 per cent increase in second-hand listings in Australia in the first half of 2022, compared to the same period last year, according to its owner, Meta.
The top-searched items are caravans, cars, couches, coffee tables, and “free items”.
eBay has seen recent increases in sales of men’s clothes and shoes, as well as second-hand tech and toys like video game consoles and video games.
Used smart-watches, headphones and vacuums are also selling well.
“We expect to see refurbished items grow in popularity as people tighten their belts,” said eBay Australia’s Sophie Onikul.
Gumtree also said it expected to see an increase in the second-hand economy this year.
Meanwhile, the action is heating up in second-hand auction houses.
As conditions worsen, auction sites thrive
Like Celine, Erika and her husband (combined income of about $200,000) recently turned to second-hand shopping to save money.
“Prices have gone up so much,” she said.
“I don’t want to justify spending more money when I’m not making enough.”
She bought a kitchen dresser on an auction site, watched YouTube tutorials, shopped for white paint and primer, and “made it into Hamptons style.”
That auction site, Abbey’s Auctions in Melbourne, is predicting strong growth.
“We’re certainly one of the counter-cyclical businesses,” said Amanda Brook, the company’s chief executive officer.
Not only will more people be buying second-hand, but more will be selling their possessions, as they downsize or cut costs.
“A lot of people will be moving out of big family homes into smaller, more manageable properties,” Ms Brook said.
“That puts a lot of lovely products in the auction space.”
Huge appetite’ for ‘buy nothing’ groups
Then there’s the other option: buying nothing at all.
Until the pandemic, Alison from Melbourne mostly bought stuff new.
But she lost her customer service job in early 2020 and has struggled to find a permanent position.
Eight months ago, with the fridge on the blink, “out of necessity” she joined her local “buy nothing” group on Facebook.
Begun in 2013 in the United States, the Buy Nothing Project describes itself as a global movement in which neighbours come together and share what they need, without exchanging money.
The self-described movement claims to have more than 5 million members worldwide, with 7,000 communities in 44 countries.
Since joining her local one, Alison has picked up a free second-hand fridge, bed frame, bookshelf, and 42-inch TV.
“The fridge works brilliantly,” she said.
But what’s best about the group, she said, was getting to know her neighbours, who’ve helped deliver what others have given away, and even dropped off food when she was short.
“It’s a lovely community as well. It’s blown me away.”
Stevie Picton, founder and administrator of a central Adelaide buy nothing group, said that was the whole idea.
Economic hardship, she said, could see people exploring more creative and generous ways of exchanging and sharing goods and services — and to connect with their local community.
Already, the group’s membership has doubled in the past year.
“Definitely, we’re going to be seeing more people joining.”
The ‘stigma’ of not buying new
But old ideas die hard, and buying used is not for everyone.
Celine recently picked up free second-hand blinds, but she won’t be telling her middle-class friends.
“There is a sense of stigma,” she said.
She’s embarrassed by her family’s lack of money, and her reluctance to tell others has landed her in awkward situations.
She’s made excuses to avoid the expense of her book club’s monthly restaurant outings, or attending weekend getaways with friends.
And with a big mortgage to pay, she expects this is just the start.
Second-hand shopping do’s and don’ts
- Ask for photos of the product
- Ask about any returns policies or warranties
- If possible, meet in-person to see the item and exchange money. Take a friend or family member with you
- Use a trusted resale website, preferably with seller and buyer protections in place
- If you can pay through the website or app, do that — you’re more likely to get a refund if the item doesn’t arrive
- Watch out for red flags, like asking for a deposit, or wanting to communicate outside of the app/website
- Check a buyer or seller’s user profile for reviews or feedback
- Test appliances before you buy them
- If possible, inspect clothes and fabrics for stains and rips before you hand over the money
- Don’t buy items that aren’t safe sold second-hand, like car seats and bicycle helmets
- Don’t be duped by fake designer goods. It’s probably too good to be true