Used Tech and Gadget Repair Businesses Are Booming Right Now
Last month, a Minnesota company called Tech Discounts received an email from a man in California. He had been trying to purchase 100 Chromebooks to donate to a nonprofit, but because of supply chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he hadn’t been able to find a seller. He had initially hoped to buy the computers new, but when he learned about Tech Discounts, an electronics refurbisher based in St. Paul, on an online forum, he decided to give the company a try. Within about two weeks, Tech Discounts filled the order and shipped him 100 refurbished Chromebooks — used devices that have been repaired and restored to good working order.
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Ordinarily, it would be unusual for Tech Discounts to receive such a big order from someone halfway across the country. The company, which sources electronics from its sister electronics recycling business Tech Dump, ships small orders all over the nation, while orders of 10 or more computers are typically local. But with most of the nation in a state of partial or complete lockdown since mid-March, these are far from ordinary times. As the new normal of teleworking, remote learning, and maintaining relationships via Zoom wears on, people are finding themselves in need of additional phones, tablets, laptops, and IT equipment but unable to afford brand-new devices or unable to find them because manufacturers are out of stock. Early data and anecdotal reports suggest many people are turning to the refurbished market for the first time, where high-quality used devices can be bought at a steep discount.
“We’ve been sorta blown away by the amount of demand for [refurbished] products,” Tech Discounts and Tech Dump CEO Amanda LaGrange told OneZero.
Tech Discounts isn’t alone. Back Market, an online electronics marketplace that works with more than 1,000 professional refurbishers worldwide, saw sales increase “very abruptly” beginning in early April, said Serge Verdoux, managing director of Back Market’s Americas division. For several days after the first round of IRS relief checks went out beginning on April 15, sales in the United States “approached Black Friday levels,” Verdoux said. They have remained historically high ever since.
When Back Market polled its customers in April, nearly 30% of 3,057 respondents said their recent device purchases were a direct result of the pandemic. Out of 790 customers who bought a refurbished device because of the pandemic and answered a follow-up question about that purchase, more than half purchased home office equipment, and 27% bought a device to help their kids learn from home. Staying in touch with family and friends was the answer given by 20%. Of 695 individuals who responded to a question about finances, nearly half said they couldn’t afford to purchase a new device.
“There’s a strong purchase power issue related to the devices we sell,” said Back Market co-founder Vianney Vaute. “Clearly the crisis proves that.”
Many electronics refurbishers went into the pandemic with a strong online presence. Counterpoint Research, a market research firm focused on the tech industry, published figures that indicate first-quarter sales of smartphones by major brands including Apple, Samsung, LG, and Motorola in the U.S. were down 21% compared to last year. Counterpoint attributed the dip to “store closures and stay-at-home orders.” Over the same time period, the firm’s preliminary data shows that sales of used smartphones on platforms like Swappa rose 28%.
“Nothing convinces people of the importance of the right to repair more than actually repairing their own electronics.”
“Many secondary market devices are sold online… so it was less of an issue having stores closed or with reduced hours/services,” Jeff Fieldhack, a research director at Counterpoint, told OneZero in an email.
In some markets, the supply of used electronics can’t keep up with demand. Erez Pikar is the CEO of Troxell-CDI, a company that supplies computers, tablets, and audio-visual technology to public school districts across the United States and Canada, mostly for K-12 education. In March and April, he said, the company saw a “big run on inventory” of both new and refurbished devices as school districts scrambled to get all of their students set up with tablets or computers for online learning. At the same time, many businesses that lease low- to mid-end computers for their employees chose to extend those leases to help employees work from home, or over fears about the state of the economy. As a result, the supply of end-of-lease computers that represent a key source of refurbished equipment for educators “dried right up,” Pikar said.
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While Troxell-CDI’s April sales were up 60% compared with April 2019, Pikar believes sales “would have been a lot higher if there was availability of product.” He estimates that the K-12 public school market is still 5 million devices short of where it needs to be by fall 2020 in order for every district in the country to be able to move entirely online.
As the refurbished electronics market experiences new growing pains, another emerging trend could help ease the pressure, at least at the individual level: More and more people seem to be fixing broken devices at home.
“The interest in repair across the board is way up,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of the repair site iFixit.
iFixit, which hosts thousands of free online repair manuals in addition to selling repair tools and parts, drew about 10 million monthly unique visitors prior to the pandemic. Wiens said that mid-March marked an “inflection point,” and that traffic has increased “substantially.” In April, over 12 million people visited the site.
iFixit has seen a particularly big traffic spike on its Nintendo Switch repair guides, Wiens said. With millions of people spending their free time playing the new Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Nintendo’s repair centers closed until further notice, people are taking it upon themselves to fix their consoles at home.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm where there’s a factory defect with the Switch, where the left joystick drifts, and Nintendo had an extended warranty repair program but their repair center is shut down,” Wiens said. “We have a tutorial and sell a repair kit with the part, and we’ve sold thousands of these.”
Tech Discount’s LaGrange recently picked up some new repair skills herself. When her dishwasher broke several weeks back, she knew she couldn’t bring a repair person into her apartment to fix it, but her building was able to supply the replacement component she needed. So, she opened up YouTube, found a dishwasher repair tutorial, and repaired the appliance. “It was incredibly empowering,” she said.
“Part of the reason we ended up with such a disposable relationship with devices like phones is it was convenient to upgrade every few years… New devices are no longer more convenient — or even available.”
Wiens suspects interest in home repair will remain up after the pandemic: Once people overcome the initial fear of fixing their devices, they tend to keep doing it, he says. And while the surge of demand for used equipment might cool off as schools and companies finish buying what they need to conduct business remotely, Back Market’s Vaute believes the refurbished market will see a permanent expansion as the idea of buying used becomes normalized for more consumers.
“I think for a new consumer in this area it is a leap of faith, the same one you feel when you open your smartphone for the first time to change the battery,” he said. “Once you went through this process, chances are you’re not gonna go back until a big innovation is out there that could justify buying a new device.”
A more technologically thrifty society, where consumers increasingly choose to buy used devices over new ones, or repair old devices rather than replace them, could be a small victory for the right-to-repair movement, an effort to facilitate the conservation and repair of tech devices. Recent polling suggests that while most Americans aren’t very familiar with the right to repair, once they learn about the movement, they overwhelmingly tend to support laws that would prevent manufacturers from monopolizing repair of their devices.
“Nothing convinces people of the importance of the right to repair more than actually repairing their own electronics,” said Sina Khanifar, CEO of the online electronics reseller Waveform and a board member at The Repair Association. “Electronics manufacturers want to sell you new equipment… That’s why they so often make their equipment difficult or impossible to repair. Once consumers see that for themselves, they realize why we need governments to step in.”
A public that’s more inclined to repair and reuse would also be a win for the environment. Most of the environmental impact of consumer electronics occurs during their production, which involves mining and refining dozens of rare metals and using energy-intensive processes to fabricate and assemble the parts. When our devices reach the end of their lives, they become toxic e-waste that is difficult to recycle and very often winds up in landfills. The best way to reduce environmental impacts at both ends of the life cycle is to use devices for longer and buy fewer overall.
“Part of the reason we ended up with such a disposable relationship with devices like phones and computers is it was convenient to upgrade every few years,” Nathan Proctor, who heads up the right-to-repair campaign at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told OneZero in an email. “That dynamic has shifted quickly because new devices are no longer more convenient — or even available. Now, people are turning back to repair and refurbished devices. Perhaps when this is all over, that means a lot more people will question the idea that we need new electronics all time.”