Shunning the word ‘used,’ the resale sector has not settled on another term

Resale. Pre-owned. Pre-Loved. Secondhand. Why can’t we settle on a term for the not-new?
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When Karin Dillie joined Recurate, which partners with brands to build their resale programs, as VP of partnerships in 2021, she was coming off a four-year stint as an executive at The RealReal and had been at Sotheby’s for five years before that, so she had some strong opinions about used products. But perhaps the strongest was that those goods should not be referred to as “used” in Recurate’s marketing.

“It just sounds like something dirty,” Dillie, who today is head of sellers at electronics reseller Back Market, told Retail Brew. “A ‘used’ tissue is done; you’re not going to engage with that tissue again.”

Most of Recurate’s partners are clothing brands, and “the connotation of something dirty is not what you want people to think about when they’re buying something they’re going to put…on their body,” Dillie explained.

It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of growth of the resale market. In the US, the growth of the resale sector outpaced the overall retail sector by 7x in 2023, and will hit $73 billion by 2028, according to ThredUp’s latest annual resale report.

But as the industry gets more established, it has yet to settle on a single term for its merchandise. If, as Dillie contends, “used” is tainted, should they instead call their offerings, as many do, “pre-owned,” “pre-loved,” or “secondhand”?

Branders gonna brand: “Brands are obviously very excited about this new thing and they want to make it their own and they want to brand it in their own way,” Emily Gittins, co-founder and CEO of Archive, which partners with brands on their resale programs, told Retail Brew. “But what that means is we’ve ended up with The North Face Renewed, New Balance Reconsidered, Dr. Martens ReWair, [and] Marimekko Pre-Loved.”

The challenge, Gittins said, is for consumers looking for resale items to recognize that is what those sites indeed are selling.

“We’re trying to shift consumer behavior, and as this is so new, we need to be using the same consumer-facing word across the board,” Gittins said.

Brands with resale programs often highlight them on navigation bars that run across their main e-commerce sites, and Gittins recalled when one brand partner, which she did not name, had called their resale program “re-love” on the navigation bar. Archive suspected online resale shoppers weren’t clicking because they didn’t know what “re-love” meant, so “we asked them to change it to ‘resale.’ And…overnight, the number of customers clicking on that doubled,” Gittins said.

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“‘Resale’ is good because it’s pretty self-explanatory,” Gittins said. “It’s short and succinct, which matters when you’re talking about real estate on the top navigation.”

Gittins said she’s not a fan of “secondhand,” both because it’s “quite a long word” for a navigation bar and because brands often sell returned items on their resale sites which technically aren’t secondhand because no one previously owned them.

Not encompassing returned items also is why another popular term with brands, “pre-loved,” falls short for Gittins.

Neither does Dillie favor “pre-loved,” which along with being largely inaccurate (“Let’s be honest; I’ve resold things I didn’t love and just didn’t want anymore,” she said), seems euphemistic.

“Brands or different marketplaces have used [‘pre-loved’] as a way to soften ‘secondhand’, or soften the word ‘resale,’” Dillie said. “They use ‘pre-loved’ to make it seem more glamorous [but] it seems less glamorous; it seems a little corny.”

Gittins is more partial to “pre-owned,” which although it does not encompass returns is “relatively neutral,” she said. “If that ends up being the word that people resonate with the most, I would be on board for that.”

Name dropping: Andy Ruben, who founded Trove, which also partners with brands on their resale websites, in 2012, said the plethora of terms reflects the vibrancy of the resale market.

“The reason there’s so many words is because it’s of interest,” Ruben told Retail Brew. “If it was a super boring thing, we’d have one word, and everyone would move on down the road.”

As for what term is his favorite, Ruben said it’s immaterial because ultimately brands will adopt the term that consumers use most.

“I don’t think that my say really matters,” Ruben said. “It will be a consumer term.”

Ruben, who worked on online shopping retail strategies dating back to a consultancy he founded in 1996, and then during a decade-long stint as an executive at Walmart beginning in 2002, noted that back then, there was a similar cornucopia of terms for that then-emerging phenomenon.

“I think I had ‘electronic shopping’ in my title at one point,” Ruben said. “‘Web commerce’, ‘digital shopping’, ‘online retail’, ‘internet commerce’, ‘digital retailing’, ‘cyber shopping’—these were all titles in places like Walmart. And then they weren’t.”

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.