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The New Era of Secondhand Shopping

"This is really adjacent to the secondhand movement," said Ron Williams, CEO and co-founder of SnapGoods. "With secondhand goods, it's more about feeling good to give a product out when I'm done with it. Our message is more about the tons of underutilized items where people are not done with them."

Meanwhile, for those looking to pick up used books, CDs and games, there is Swap.com, a site launched in 2006 that makes it easier for users to effectively barter or "swap" one product for another. All you have to do is list one of your items as available and the site will show you a list of dozens of other items you can get in return from another user.

"This goes beyond what might be considered the old thrift movement," said Jeff Bennett, CEO of Swap. "Consumers are reconsidering everything they have and saying, 'What do I need and what don't I need.' They are looking at alternatives to credit and cash. Instead, they are looking at how big is the ATM in their house."

How We Got Here and Where We're Going

Most experts date the birth of consumerism back to the 1950s. Americans had just made it through two wars and the Great Depression and were earning a better wage. They were ready to spend. On top of that, advertisers and even legislators began goading consumers to buy new products whether they needed them or not.

But during the past decade, three big factors have helped dismantle this trend and turn "consumerism" into a dirty word. The first, according to Gerzema, the consumer expert, is a growing concern about the environment and wasting resources. The desire to fix this has been helped by the second factor, which is technology, starting with the Internet.

"The Web is one big matchmaking machine that allows us to match goods and needs," said Rachel Botsman, co-author of What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption and a former director at the Clinton Foundation. The introduction of smartphones during the past five years has also sped up the boom in digital services that help people find and sell goods. "We can now locate anything anytime anywhere. We don't even have to be at our computer."

The third and final factor is, of course, the bad economy.

"The recession has accelerated this trend in a couple ways. It has created a questioning about what really makes us happy," she said. "And I think that's led to a questioning of the way we live our lives and led to the realization that an economy based on always buying more doesn't work."

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