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One person’s trash could be another’s “appearance,” or what rapper Macklemore calls hidden treasures in the song “Thrift Shop,” but only if passive shoppers follow in the rapper’s footsteps and dig into the occasional messy bins. New research from Penn State University and Texas Christian University shows that shoppers looking to “show some signs” may be attracted to thrift store offerings because they indicate hidden treasure in their inventory.
“Flea markets are growing in popularity, especially among young people,” said Lisa Bolton, associate professor of marketing and professor of business administration at Penn State University. “We found that chaos in these markets increases consumers’ perceptions of risk but also increases the possibility of finding hidden treasure.”
These perceptions work against each other, meaning that risks — such as concerns about product quality or wasted time and effort — decrease the likelihood of purchase while perceptions of hidden treasures increase the likelihood of purchase, according to the researchers.
“We wanted to see what sellers could do to moderate perceptions of risk and increase perceptions of finding hidden treasure,” Bolton said. “Just because shoppers walk into a messy store doesn’t mean they have to walk away. There may be good deals to find.”
Researchers conducted four separate studies to determine how disruption in traditional retail locations affects consumer behavior and what retailers can do to encourage purchase probability.
“Unfortunately, we were in the middle of a global pandemic so going out to used stores to talk to consumers directly was not an option,” Bolton said.
Instead, the researchers went online and asked the participants—most of whom reported shopping experience at second-hand retail stores—to view images of ordered or unordered retail displays. They were asked to rate the products and evaluate the possibility of buying under different scenarios. Scenarios included going to a thrift store to casually browse items versus going with the intent to buy a specific item, shopping at a store that offered a clear return policy, and shopping at a store where the retailer demonstrated low to high inventory knowledge.
The research team found that turbulence in the used retail market enhanced perceptions of risk and finding hidden treasure, but that these perceptions of risk outweighed perceptions of finding hidden treasure for a net negative effect on the likelihood of purchase. When retailers established clear return policies, perceptions of risk diminished, but perceptions of hidden treasure also diminished as customers questioned the items’ special nature.
When retailers demonstrated high inventory knowledge through their ability to answer customer questions and share backstories of items, shoppers saw the products being carefully curated by the seller. In response, perception of risk decreased and perceptions of hidden treasure and the likelihood of purchase increased. The researchers report their findings in the March issue of Retail Magazine.
said Gretchen Ross, assistant professor of marketing at Texas Christian University, first author of the study and a Ph.D. at Penn State.
“We found that when displays are cluttered and the seller has high inventory knowledge, perceptions of hidden treasures increase. Consumers believe that a seller should know what to choose for their inventory, and they will not choose poor quality items, which reduces risk and increases the likelihood of buying.”
According to the researchers, additional steps used retailers can take to increase their awareness of hidden treasures and reduce risk is to incorporate “hidden treasure” into their store name and build a community either online or by hosting annual events.
The study suggests that clutter that comes across as chaotic displays isn’t as harmful as used sellers think, said Meg Milloy, PhD, professor of marketing and business administration professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“In general, there is an enthusiasm when people are shopping secondhand,” she said. “We’re now seeing giant online retailers offering return mystery boxes, so there’s appreciation and excitement building around the possibility of finding hidden treasure. If a consumer naturally values the possibility of hidden treasure, they won’t necessarily be put off by market chaos.”
Gretchen R. Ross et al, Disruption in used retail space: The countervailing powers of hidden treasures and perils, Retail Magazine (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.jretai.2022.12.002