From “New” to “New to Me” — A Thought Experiment

Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

I recently ran across a 2021 interview of journalist JB MacKinnon in The Guardian about his then-new book, The Day the World Stops Shopping. The interview explored Mr. MacKinnon’s view that over-consumption is killing our planet, and his conclusion that the best way to save our planet (and gain more meaning in our own lives as a result) is to shop less — 100% less, to be exact.

I found his vision of a world without shopping beautiful, and though I completely agree with his view that over-consumption is at the heart of our climate crisis, I remained somewhat skeptical that such a dramatic change can be achieved in the short timeframe that we have remaining. I am optimistic about humankind’s capacity to rally against a univeral impending doom, but I would personally prefer to have a solution worked out well ahead of the eleventh hour.

Still, I was inspired to conduct my own thought experiment on an alternative, one that might be less disruptive to our way of life and our economy than completely abandoning shopping. I began to wonder whether over-consumption could be reduced to sustainable consumption by changing the way we shop. What if we began our shopping by looking for suitable secondhand products first (i.e., products that are “new to me” rather than just “new”), and only if that search did not produce a suitable option would we shop new. After some consideration, I believe that such a shift would create the proper incentives for businesses and consumers to sustain a permanent, and perhaps rapid, shift to bringing our consumption back to sustainable levels.

I began my experiment with the two assumptions. First, I assumed that some level of shopping is necessary for the stable functioning of our economy. Second, I assumed that a small but meaningful number of shoppers take up the “new to me” cause as early adopters who seed this transition. I then set the experiment in motion to see what could happen next.

To begin with, some portion of the “new to me” early adopters’ spending would be diverted away from new purchases. The drop in sales would be noticed by brands. A small group of brands would view this change as a permanent shift in consumer behavior and quickly begin considering how to respond. The majority of brands would adopt a wait-and-see approach, which their investors would likely support as long as they believe that the decline is temporary. A number of brands would refuse to accept that anything has changed, nor that anything will change. Those brands will eventually find themselves out of business, Blockbuster-style.

At some point, sooner for the early adopters and later for the laggards, brands would look to implement a strategy to reverse their declining sales (and falling stock prices). They would inevitably start with traditional strategies to boosting sales because we’re conditioned to believe that what worked in the past will continue to work in the future even if conditions have changed. These companies would increase spending on marketing and product development to attract new customers, trim costs to prop up margins, and offer discounts to jumpstart sales and move excess inventory. They may even attempt a wholesale brand reposition to pursue the premiums garnered by luxury brands.

Some of these strategies would see some level of success so long as the shift to “new to me” doesn’t accelerate. If adoption of the “new to me” movement stalls, we would likely find ourselves in a new equilibrium where some brands make some efforts to adapt, but the majority continue doing business as usual. However, if the movement does accelerate, all of these strategies would fail because none of them address the reality that there are fewer people buying new products. When there are fewer customers to chase, the cost to acquire each new customer increases and new sales become ever more elusive. If brands stuck to the old playbook, they would find themselves struggling with a continued decline in sales and margins, and maybe even the demise of their businesses.

So what could brands do to adapt? This is where the thought experiment got interesting. There is one option that is not in the old playbook — if you can’t beat them, join them! Instead of trying to convince shoppers to buy more new products, brands could embrace the “new to me” trend and find ways to participate in secondhand transactions. Each transaction they touch is an opportunity to earn new revenue that is not tied to new sales and that could incrementally increase revenue. This approach would result in a more diverse and resilient business that would be set up for long-term success, especially if the “new to me” trend grows beyond our small but meaningful group of early adopters.

Brands would begin experimenting with a diverse set of secondhand models. If they want to manage the supply of products and build a recurring revenue stream, they can offer rental or buy-back programs that involving listing their own products for resale through existing e-commerce channels. If they want to help customers buy and sell secondhand, they can operate a peer-to-peer marketplaces. If they want to expand their relationship with customers, they can offer repair or repurpose services. No matter what combination of models they choose, every transaction results in new revenue that is disassociated from selling new products. This new revenue would plug the gap left by declining new sales, and perhaps even overtake it as demand grows.

An indirect but important benefit of incorporating secondhand into their businesses is that brands now have an economic incentive to produce durable products. If some portion of a brand’s revenue stream is predicated on the ability to rent or resell a product over and over, it behooves the brand to ensure that their products can hold together as long as possible. Interestingly enough, research shows that consumers are willing to pay more for such products — an extra boost to revenue on the new sale side of the business as well!

When enough brands embrace secondhand, and enough marketing dollars are invested in making customers aware of these options, a virtuous cycle will be born. More consumers would begin to adopt “new to me,” which would increase sales of secondhand products, which would then encourage brands to make more investment in the space.

It then follows that when sales growth is driven largely by secondhand transactions, the pressure to constantly produce and sell new products would decline. A strategic reduction in production can then safely follow without jeopardizing the economic well-being of the business. The incentive to ensure that the products that are produced have a long life expectancy remains strong because of the virtuous cycle that exists. The ideal environment is created to bring consumption and production back to sustainable levels. A world where we produce only what we need, and where we use what we have for as long as possible, starts coming into focus.



Helping to make products more sustainable through re-commerce.

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