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Secondhand gifts poised to ride a holiday shopping wave

It's not cheaping out to give gifts from online auction, thrift and consignment sites, shoppers say.

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Concerns over sustainability and changing views on fashion have made used gifts less taboo.

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Teresa Chin, a friend of mine from grad school, got an early start hunting for Christmas ornaments for her in-laws this year. She'd heard about global supply chain snags and didn't want to be caught empty-handed for the holiday.

So Chin turned to Poshmark, an online market for secondhand clothes and household goods, where she found figurines of skiing cheetahs -- objects full of personal references that would tickle her husband's parents. Because Poshmark sellers tend to list what they already have on hand, Chin didn't worry about her cheetahs missing the holiday because of busy ports or blocked canals. The purchases also fit her value of consuming less new stuff.

"It's on time. It's cute," Chin told me. "It feels personal."

Chin is far from alone in giving gifts euphemistically referred to as "previously owned." Spurred by concerns about consumer waste and climate change, attitudes about secondhand goods have been shifting for years. The reevaluation has created a booming business for everything from auction sites to online consignment stores.

The popularity of used items has prompted many consumers to consider a practice that was once unthinkable: giving secondhand goods as gifts. Nearly 40% of respondents to a survey conducted on behalf of resale site Mercari said they're planning to buy at least one secondhand gift this year. Half of those said they'd be comfortable telling the recipient the gift was previously owned. Sales in luxury categories are swift as the holidays approach, according to eBay, which said it's seeing five pre-owned watches and three pre-owned handbags sell every minute as the holidays approach.

The move toward secondhand gifts is getting a powerful boost this year from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered factories and closed down ports. That's made new items susceptible to shipping delays and supply shortages. Secondhand goods aren't subject to those woes. If the collectible sneakers are on the site, they're in stock.

Buying used items online has been around since Web 1.0. But options for finding the perfect gift have multiplied in recent years. Early internet standby eBay, where designer clothes, electronics and collectibles have been on offer since the 1990s, now competes with peer-to-peer markets like Poshmark and Mercari. Online consignment shops, including the RealReal, ThredUp and Vestiaire Collective, have also sprung up.

Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at Global Data, whose firm helped conduct the Mercari survey, says people buying online for themselves has helped break down the psychological barrier to shopping for used gifts.

"We've seen that stigma come down year after year," Saunders said.

Used goods can mean less environmental damage

Some shoppers are drawn to online thrifting and consignment as a way to reduce their environmental footprint, ThredUp and the RealReal both say. This extends to gift-giving, as 22% of shoppers in the Mercari survey said they'd turn to the secondhand market during the holidays because of sustainability concerns.

Buying used fashion lets gift-givers find something nice that contributes less to climate change than something new would. The fashion industry has a bad reputation for emitting greenhouse gasses, polluting water and contributing to deforestation, which has pushed more socially conscious people to buy fewer new clothes. More than 40% of respondents said sustainability was a "deciding factor" for shopping at the RealReal, according to survey data from the company.

ThredUp has found that sustainability is especially motivating for younger shoppers, says Christina Berger, a company spokesperson. ThredUp and other online resellers could prompt fashion brands to make fewer, higher-quality products, she says.

"There will always be a place for new items, of course," Berger said. "But overall we need to reuse more and produce less."

Used goods can be one of a kind

Many gift-givers, like my friend Teresa, are looking for something unique that matches the recipient's tastes. Recent changes in the way shoppers view fashion trends mean that many people are interested in finding older handbags or accessories from fashion collections that are hard to find. Having the latest isn't the only -- or even highest -- priority for fashionistas.

That shift was already underway with items like sneakers, which grow the most in resale value of all apparel categories, and now means the most thoughtful gift you can give a fashionable friend might end up being a Gucci handbag from a few years ago. Consignment sites might have only one or two listed among all their other items, so receiving that exact bag could be a big deal.

"It's extra special knowing that the gifter curated something for you from millions of items," said Rati Levesque, president of the RealReal.

Used goods don't have to seem cheap

Holiday gift-givers aren't Scrooges because they shop secondhand. Sure, you can find a nice winter coat or brand name athletic wear at around half the listed retail price on many auction, thrifting and consignment sites, but you can also find Versace handbags and Cartier watches that cost more than a thousand dollars.

Many consignment services are aimed at people who see clothes as an investment. Companies like the RealReal and ThredUp say they want to help consumers buy higher-cost items new, and then resell them to recoup some of the cost.

It's a potential alternative to fast-fashion buys. Instead of constantly buying cheaply made clothes that wear out easily, shoppers who can afford to pay more up front can access togs that cost more but last longer and retain some of their value. Some sellers might get only part of their money back, and others might get even more than they originally paid because some items go up in value as they become harder to find.

Electronics are another item that shoppers can find at a discount on resale sites, including eBay, and they aren't necessarily less nice as gifts. Most people want to give electronics in a sealed box, says Jordan Sweetnam, senior vice president and general manager of eBay North America. The company's eBay Refurbished program provides electronics in generic packaging, and sometimes includes new user manuals. Name brands also sell their own refurbished products on eBay, typically with branded packaging and quality guarantees. 

That, he says, provides "that fresh out-of-the box feeling that's so important when gifting refurbished products."