Friday 28 October 2016

David McWilliams: How a second-hand idea has now become a mass movement

Published 27/05/2015 | 02:30

Philip McGovern and Gary Cowen celebrate the result in the marriage referendum at Dublin Castle. The campaign reflected how a minority issue became mainstream, much like how second-hand selling is now become mainstream
Philip McGovern and Gary Cowen celebrate the result in the marriage referendum at Dublin Castle. The campaign reflected how a minority issue became mainstream, much like how second-hand selling is now become mainstream

The way in which popular movements morph from being extreme to becoming mainstream is inherently fascinating. The Marriage Referendum is an example of one such process. Not that long ago, gay people's issues were exactly that: gay people's issues.

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By last Friday, what was once a minority issue had become a national movement.

It is impossible to predict when and why certain ideas jump from being regarded as eccentric to being conventional. Take fashion. For example, I am not too sure when young, white, rugby-playing boys from South Dublin started wearing their trousers low slung down around their arses, but I know where it came from.

It came from prisons in the US where belts were banned due to suicide risk. So the inmates regularly wore trousers too big for them as they were given their hand-me-down prison uniform when they arrived. Soon, prisons became full of men wearing trousers that may have been too big for them and therefore fell down around their ass. This became a prison look.

In time, young black men on the outside decided to ape the behaviour and fashions of prisoners to make them seem as hard as those lads on the inside.

Soon, American inner city streets were full of young black men wearing trousers hanging down low. Because so much of our urban fashion is a derivative of the hip-hop-inspired black street culture, the fashion jumped races from black to white. And in no time it spread from white Americans to white Europeans, so much so that we now have rich, white, south Dublin schoolboys dressing like they are in super-max American prisons - and they don't even realise it!

This dissemination of ideas has always fascinated me.

The spread of tolerance in Ireland, which culminated in the Yes vote the other day, was something that was building for a long time. In fact, the vote didn't change the country, it merely reflected the extent to which the country had already changed. The idea had already spread and jumped from the minority to the mainstream.

We are now experiencing a similar spread of an idea and a form of public behaviour that will have enormous ramifications for the entire retail sector in Ireland.

I am talking about the massive shift in the past few years to online buying and selling of everything from cars to iPhones, from baby buggies to Foo Fighters tickets, from fireplaces to communion dresses.

The figures for this relatively new business, that was hardly on the radar screen five years back, are quite unbelievable. The market leader in the business is DoneDeal so I will use their figures (and in the interests of disclosure, I have been working on the impact of this business on the economy).

In the last four years, the number of ads placed on DoneDeal has increased by 215pc. The number of new people creating accounts has increased by 32pc in the past two years to 486,452. This is one in six of the adult population. This Ireland, second-hand Ireland, is growing at an extraordinary rate and shows no sign of abating.

In economics, context is everything and the context to the growth of second-hand Ireland has been the recession. As the recession embedded itself in the society, our attitude to buying and selling changed dramatically. And as the recession abated, the legacy of the recession lingered. Our shopping behaviour has changed forever.

In our new post-recession Ireland, value trumps bravado, caution beats carelessness and bargain beats brash. If the Celtic Tiger was all about flash, in-your-face public spending of other people's money, today's chastened Ireland is about low-key, understated, private bargain hunting. We've done the 'boom, debt, bust' thing and don't want to go back there again. Today, it's all about price, value and living well within our means.

However, for a change in behaviour to take off, context isn't enough; it needs to be mixed with a disruptive technology which enables a change in behaviour. That piece of technology was obviously the internet and then more recently, the smartphone.

Online marketplaces are enabled by technology. As a result of technology, hundreds of thousands of Irish people are buying and selling online, every day, every hour, from every corner of the country. This is the new way of trading. Stuff that you thought was for the skip is now of value and stuff that was beyond your reach is now accessible, albeit second hand.

Most importantly, companies such as DoneDeal make the individual the king of the transaction.

The individual buyer or seller sets the price, sets the terms, does the bargaining and arranges when and where to collect. This is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year business.

Contrast this freewheeling new economy with the traditional retail strictures.

Think about the way we used to shop only a few years ago. Shops opened from 9 to 5, selling specific goods and nothing more.

In the old days, the shopkeeper hoped that random people would stroll by and they might, just at that particular moment, fancy buying one of those specific goods at a price that was fixed by the shopkeeper and which you, the buyer, had no say in. The buyer had to be enticed to buy maybe with a 'sale' sign. But the entire trade was a series of coincidences; one side hoping the other might stumble upon them!

This is frankly ridiculous when seen in the context of a 24/7 buying-and-selling economy.

A bit like the low-slung trouser fashion, no one is quite sure when this online trading economy flipped from being the pursuit of the few to the fashion or commercial pastime of the many.

The figures speak for themselves.

Last year, DoneDeal saw 499,755 unique sellers place 1.85 million ads on their site with an average of 156,000 ads per month.

There has been an explosion of activity in the second-hand market in the last four years with the number of ads placed on DoneDeal increasing by 215pc since 2010. The amount of new people creating accounts with DoneDeal has increased by 32pc from 2013 to 486,452.

For the economy in general, this is huge.

The DoneDeal second-hand market is valued at more than €300m per month and stood at almost 3pc of GNP as of Q4 2014. This represents a whopping €3.9bn in activity in 2014.

This is now a mass movement which is building every day.

Like Irish society, the Irish economy has reached a tipping point.

What started as a small bunch of online traders has become a mass retail movement. This is changing the way we shop, forever.

Welcome to Second-Hand Ireland.

For more information of these trends, see

Irish Independent

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