Secondhand gifts for Christmas: Cheap or cool?

Published on Dec 15, 2021 07:42 AM IST

Good news! Awaiting you under the Christmas tree is that book you've been dying to read. But would you still be happy if you knew it was bought from the flea market?

Generational changes play a big role in how preloved Christmas gifts might be received(picture-alliance/dpa )
Generational changes play a big role in how preloved Christmas gifts might be received(picture-alliance/dpa )

Good news! Awaiting you under the Christmas tree is that book you've been dying to read. But would you still be happy if you knew it was bought from the flea market?

It's a gray, rainy, December afternoon in Cologne. Unlike the streets outside, the shop windows of the Oxfam thrift store on the city's Friesenplatz are bustling with activity. That's because every Wednesday afternoon, they get a makeover. This week, the display is dedicated to Christmas, and is complete with golden baubles and bowls, a champagne bottle and glasses to match.

Everything volunteers here sell was donated, and almost all of it is secondhand. All the profits go to Oxfam, allowing it to pursue its development goals, according to its mission statement.

"Aside from decorations, the most-bought items over the Christmas period are books and cute little things such as nice cups or toys," said Steffi Müller, who has worked in the Friesenplatz store for 10 years now. Over that time, she has seen more and more demand for products other than clothes during the Christmas season.

ALSO READ: Where Christmas and arched candle holders are inseparable

Her observations are confirmed by Matthias Scholl, the regional manager for Oxfam shops in western and southern Germany. "For several years now, we've witnessed an increased demand toward the end of the year in the 55 secondhand shops we operate across the country. In the lead-up to Christmas, sales are roughly 10% higher than the annual average."

Does this mean that more people are happy with used — and therefore sustainable — gifts?

Secondhand is socially acceptable

At the very least, it does seem that secondhand is becoming more mainstream. A 2020 study on ethical consumption, published by German e-commerce company Otto Group, found that 73% of respondents said they liked being able to buy or sell used items such as secondhand fashion or old furniture.

According to trend researcher Peter Wippermann, who led the study, this shift in consumer behavior is driven by younger generations who are less interested in having new things than in getting what they want when they want it, and not having to spend much in the process.

"New no longer has to mean brand-new," said Wipperman, adding that the trend has spread beyond just fashion and other fast-moving goods to areas such as mobility. "Today, it's important to be able to drive whenever you want, but not to own your own car."

And the world of secondhand is now shedding its musty flea-market image. On large internet platforms, where people can buy and sell used goods, words such as "preloved" are starting to replace "secondhand."

Internet driving secondhand market

One of these secondhand fashion internet platforms is called Vinted, formerly known as Kleiderkreisel. In a recent Vinted survey run in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands, 56% of respondents said they would like to give or receive a mix of secondhand and new gifts for Christmas. Another 14% said they were intending to buy exclusively secondhand gifts this year.

Such peer-to-peer platforms, in which users buy and sell directly from each other, have been a huge boost to the secondhand market, according to Carl Tillessen, a trend analyst at German Fashion Institute, a Cologne-based company that researches fashion developments.

"The secondhand market faces a serious challenge, in that each piece somehow has to find the exact person that want to buy it. But the internet makes this possible, and in a very cost-effective and hygienic way, without superfluous transport or storage," he said.

How sustainable is preloved really?

For many buyers and sellers on secondhand platforms, though, sustainability isn't the first thing on their minds, said Tillessen. A Boston Consulting Group survey of 7,000 people from six countries found that just 36% of respondents were driven primarily by sustainability when shopping. Instead, issues such as good value, a large product range and current trends took precedence.

For Generation Z — those who were born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s —secondhand clothes are seen as a kind of fast fashion, said Tillessen. Whatever they no longer want, they quickly sell on. This is different from the world of new fast fashion, in which new clothes are bought cheaply, worn briefly, and then thrown away.

In principle, people buying secondhand goods is a positive for sustainability, said Viola Muster, who heads the department of economic education and sustainable consumption at the Technical University of Berlin.

"But that cannot then go hand-in-hand with buying more products. It's a classic rebound effect: 'I've saved money, because I bought this secondhand product cheaply, therefore I can go and spend those savings on other consumer goods.' This doesn't achieve anything," she said.

Who enjoys receiving secondhand gifts?

But is it OK to gift a preloved scarf on its own, rather than as an accompaniment to another new gift? That really depends on the age of the receiver, said Tillessen. While the younger generations appreciate secondhand gifts, older generations tend to feel underappreciated if given something that has already been used.

"It has to do with the idea of exclusivity. That something was made just for me and that I get the privilege of being the first user — that I believe is deeply ingrained in older generations," he said. This idea is confirmed by trend researcher Wipperman. "Consumption and ownership used to be a powerful signal of social clout, while used goods were a sign of social weakness," he said.

The psychology of giving

When people give a certain gift, they are also making a statement about themselves, said Muster, adding that they don't want to seem like a cheapskate. "That especially applies if the gift giver and receiver are not close. In such relationships, we therefore often tend toward new presents," she said.

One way to get around that problem and still be sustainable is to give people a gift card for a secondhand shop or online platform, she said.

Bernd Stauss, emeritus professor of business administration at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, knows well the connections between gifting and diplomacy, communication and unwritten rules. He recently published a book on the psychology of giving.

The most poorly received gifts are those which are seen as patronizing, in which the gift giver sends the message 'I want to change you,'" he told DW. "You have to be especially careful of this when giving secondhand gifts."

But in general, empirical studies show that the most important thing when giving gifts is the symbolic value of the present, regardless of whether it's brand new or a little bit older.

"That means how much empathy was involved, what effort has been put into the gift or whether the gift represents some kind of sacrifice," said Strauss.

To gift someone family jewelry, for example, could be a sacrifice with great symbolic value. But it's a different matter if someone just wants to get rid of some cuff links they've never worn. "It depends on whether the recipient's interests and tastes are the primary motivation," he said.

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