As a teenager in the United Kingdom, Gemma Wills found it “highly embarrassing” to be seen in a second-hand store.
Today, however, the 35-year-old teacher and mother of three, who lives in Abu Dhabi, is one of the growing number of UAE residents for whom shopping often means browsing "for sale" postings on Facebook community pages, or rummaging through boxes at garage sales.
“It makes so much sense economically to buy things like clothes and toys second hand, especially if they’re only going to be used for a short time,” she explains. “You can find many lightly used items that are almost as good as new.”
Social media has made it easier for strangers in the UAE to connect to buy and sell their belongings. Popular Facebook groups include UAE Second Hand Sale (111,639 members), Preloved Dubai (20,839 members) and Abu Dhabi Marketplace (22,897 members), all of which provide residents with a platform to tout their wares.
Those after a deal can also shop offline at the recently reopened St Andrews Thrift Shop in Abu Dhabi’s Al Mushrif, or Light House store in Dubai, where they can bag a bargain for under Dh10.
The rise of the second hand market in the UAE could be a symptom of residents increasingly feeling the need to tighten their belts.
A June 2017 report by Knight Frank described economic conditions as being a “challenging environment for retailers.” And with a 5 per cent VAT tax to be applied on new goods from January, the second hand market might seem all the more appealing.
“Because I have less of a budget, I really evaluate the price of everything and see which is the best price for the quality I need,” says Ms Wills. “Buying things second hand, I’m saving a fortune. I recently got my one-year-old son three new pairs of shoes still with boxes for Dh50 each - brand new it's more than double for each.”
However, the surge in popularity for the ‘nearly new’ isn’t just about penny pinching.
Amruta Kshemkalyani, a sustainability consultant who founded the sustainable lifestyle guide, sustainabilitytribe.com, says a new generation of more-affluent secondhand shoppers in the UAE are motivated by a desire to make less of an environmental impact.
“Previously, second hand goods were favoured mainly for saving money, by a certain class of society,” explains Ms Kshemkalyani, an Indian who lives in Dubai’s The Greens and is on a personal mission to lead a “zero waste lifestyle”. “In the last two years I have definitely seen more people changing their habits and opting for more pre-loved goods, as the awareness of sustainable living is increasing,” she says. “When we buy a pre-loved item, we reduce our carbon footprint by not creating demand for one more new item to be manufactured.”
Second hand shopping is also becoming more ‘hip’ than ‘hippy’, with celebrities such as Gwen Stefani, Lorde, Eva Mendes, Sarah Jessica Parker and Anne Hathaway, all proud to be seen out in their nearly new clothes.
Many of the retail companies that make up the UAE’s nearly new sector specialise in high-end goods, thus opening up the designer market to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.
The Closet (for designer handbags and accessories) now has two retail stores in Dubai, and the Luxury Closet, which launched in Dubai in 2011, claims to be the Middle East’s largest online platform for pre-loved designer goods, with a staff of 80. “The stigma surrounding selling or buying pre-owned, high-end goods is being brought down as people realise the quality of the goods they are buying, and the accessibility that secondhand markets offer,” says the Luxury Closet’s social media manager Dana Negro. “Our goal is to democratise luxury and unlock the luxury world to reach a wider scope.”
British Dubai resident Sian Rowlands is about to open her first second-hand store on Umm Suqeim Road, under her brand My Ex Wardrobe, having been selling through pop up shops since 2011 with her sisters, Bekky and Teagan.
Her stock ranges from high-street work dresses at Dh70 to Dh80 to luxury designer handbags for Dh2,500. “Our first five years was focused on educating the region that buying second hand through us wasn't the same as rummaging through old stained t-shirts,” says Sian Rowlands. “We spent a lot of time talking about the throwaway lifestyle that our society has become, urging people to look in their wardrobes and realise there were many items in there that they hadn't worn, and showing them that they could save money, and the environment, by shopping with us.”
For those who don’t have the time to sell their clutter and want rid of it fast, Freecycle, a global network of more than nine million members, is an online platform that enables people to post unwanted items for free that might otherwise end up in landfill.
Freecycle was started in Arizona by Deron Beal in 2003, after he was unable to find a new home for his old mattress. American resident Gina Dillon set up Freecycle Abu Dhabi on Facebook in 2014, and her group now has 39,816 users in the capital, eclipsing the Dubai Freecycle group, which has just 2,725 members.
“What makes my group so strong is that compared to the US, which has a plethora of nonprofit entities to help the needy, the laws in the UAE are different and therefore allow community based social media groups to grow and fill that gap,” explains Ms Dillon. “I believe there is a shift, expats are buying used items to be smarter with their money. The days of expats spending frivolously are gone.”
Another way to stretch the dirham and be greener is to make your own products at home. Najet Radwaan, a Tunisian translator who lives on Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island, now makes all her own beauty products using her grandmother’s old recipes, from olive oil soaps to avocado masks, having spent two decades as a self-confessed “designerholic” when it comes to beauty.
As part of her new non-consumerist lifestyle, she also makes homemade pickles and yoghurts, and is learning how to make cheese. “My husband and I stopped looking for the latest iPhones, and are now very happy with our second hand Samsung mobiles that cost us Dh800 each,” she says.” We moved from spending around Dh2,000 to Dh3,000 a month to an average Dh1,000, without feeling any deprivation at all. We prefer to spend our money on having fun on a trip, or saving for a future investment.”
As well as buying, selling and donating, the ecoconscious can also lend and swap in the new sharing economy. The app Yo Neighbor, which launched earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, lets neighbours borrow items from each other that they may only use infrequently, and on the site SWAPaSWAP, founded in the UK, users can swap, buy and sell items. A book sharing app, Browzly, has also just launched in Dubai.
"Technology is enabling trust between strangers," says Rachel Botsman, the author of What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative. "We now live in a global village where we can mimic the ties that used to happen face to face, but on a scale and in ways that had never been possible before. Social networks and real-time technologies are taking us back. We're bartering, trading, swapping, sharing, but they're being reinvented into dynamic and appealing forms. We're sharing and collaborating again."
To some extent, the modern second hand marketplace resembles the traditional ‘souk’ more than the mall, because it offers customers the chance to haggle over prices. Ms Wills finds that compared to the UK, buyers in the UAE are quick to ask for more discounts – “even if you're selling for 50 per cent of the original value" she says. "And they’re pretty upset if you don't give them any money off - sometimes to the point of pestering you.”
Ela Jayne, a 32 year-old Australian logistics specialist, is a seasoned second hand shopper, having signed up to 11 different Facebook buy and sell groups since moving to Abu Dhabi three years ago. But her shopping experiences don’t always go according to plan. “People agree to sell me a product and then sell it before I arrive, so now I call to confirm as I head to the location to buy,” she says. “People also sometimes inaccurately describe products using false pictures, or charge more than the new price. But you quickly learn to get around that by requesting specific photos to ensure they actually own the product pictured.”
Ms Jayne furnished her entire four-bedroom house for under Dh10,000 second hand choosing only Ikea products, “so I can purchase replacement parts and complementary products easily,” she explains. Having spent only a fraction of her Dh35,000 furnishing allowance, she then used the remainder to purchase a car, “second hand, of course - a 2011 Kia Mohave, for Dh30,000. I purchased that on the classifieds site Dubizzle," she adds.
Buying a vehicle second hand is a wise financial decision. According to CarSwitch.com, a UAE platform for buying and selling certified used cars, a new motor can depreciate by more than Dh20,000 as soon as you take it home. While a car will lose 20 per cent of its value in the first year, the depreciate rate falls to 10 — 15 per cent after that.
On Abu Dhabi Market Place, Ms Smith says the most popular items are beds, sofas and white goods. "Most are too big to ship or wouldn't fit in homes where they are going," she explains.
But there are limits to what some are prepared to buy second hand.
“I definitely wouldn’t buy any personal items like makeup and underwear, shoes, mattresses and pillows second hand, for hygienic reasons,” says Ms Wills. “I’m also wary of buying used electronics. I’ve read many horror stories of people getting them home to find they’re not working.”