Story: Second-hand trade

Page 1. Commercial shop trading and dealing

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Antique shops

Antique shops were part of New Zealand’s British heritage. People went to the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe to purchase items such as furniture, silverware and china for their homes. Others would buy goods to re-sell in antique shops in New Zealand, while items brought for domestic use might also later find their way into antique shops.

In the late 19th and early 20th century some antique dealers traded Māori ‘curios’, which were collected and displayed in museums and international exhibitions too. An early dealer was James Butterworth, who operated a Māori curio-dealing business in New Plymouth. He obtained many artefacts for his shop from the Māori settlement of Parihaka.

Sartorial shame

For many people, wearing second-hand clothes was a source of shame, particularly before they became fashionable as ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’. Novelist Janet Frame recorded her embarrassment about going to school in clothes previously worn by others: ‘Anyone observing me in those days would have seen an anxious child full of twitches and tics, standing alone in a playground at school, wearing day after day the same hand-me-down tartan skirt that was almost stiff with constant wear, for it was all I had to wear.’1

Junk shops

Junk shops traded at the lower end of the market, selling useful household items and clothing rather than valuable collectable items. In the early days of European settlement it was difficult to obtain new goods (which usually had to come from England), so second-hand goods were valuable. Even once manufacturing was established, locally produced commodities remained expensive well into the 20th century – second hand was a cheaper option.

In the 2000s junk shops suffered a downturn. Many closed due to competition from increasingly professionalised opportunity (charity) shops and the rapid expansion of online trading. In early 2010 the Licensed Traders Association said that two-thirds of second-hand dealers had closed in the previous decade. But some businesses used websites such as Trade Me to increase their business, while others concentrated on expensive antiques.

Auction houses

Auction houses were located in both rural and urban centres. Household furniture, and farming equipment and animals, were popular sale items.

Some auction houses doubled as art, antique and collectables dealers, selling goods to New Zealanders and, later, to overseas buyers as well. Two of the best-known were Dunbar Sloane (established in 1918) in Auckland and Wellington, and Webb’s in Auckland (1976). Turner’s was the largest car auction house in New Zealand.

Dodgy deals

Second-hand stores and pawnshops gained a shady reputation because they were seen as places where stolen goods could be easily disposed of. Laws enacted in the 19th and 20th centuries required dealers to record the details of people selling and pawning items – but this had little effect if both parties were in on the deal or the trader was unaware. It was only in 2004 that dealers were required by law to report and hold suspected stolen goods, and police could prevent trading if they had similar suspicions.


Pawnshops lend money to people who leave goods in the shop as security. These are redeemed if the loan is paid back (with interest). The goods are sold if the loan is not repaid.

Like antique shops and auction houses, pawnshops were first set up by early European settlers. They provided poor people with access to credit – and in many cases the cash necessary for day-to-day survival – before the state provided universal social welfare in the 1930s. Pawnshops remained in business into the 2000s because they provided cash instantly. In 2009, 44 pawnshops were listed in a major business directory.

Specialist second-hand dealers

Specialist shops devoted to second-hand books, music, vintage clothing, second-hand designer clothes or furniture and homewares from particular eras attracted collectors and enthusiasts. In the early 2000s one of the oldest second-hand shops in New Zealand was Smith’s of Christchurch, which was established as a stationery and book store in 1894 and devoted itself entirely to second-hand books from 1966. Music stores included Records Records in Dunedin (established in 1971) and Slow Boat in Wellington (1985). Clothing stores include Wellington’s Ziggurat (1979) and Hamilton’s Remains to be Scene (1993). Some specialist second-hand shops started life as stalls at markets, which remained an important place for small-scale second-hand traders in the 2000s.

Used-car salesmen

Used-car salesmen first acquired their clichéd, shady reputation in the 1950s when a flood of new cars onto the market forced them to adopt aggressive sales pitches and do anything to hide flaws and mechanical problems. Cars were groomed and scented, and slogans such as ‘one careful lady owner’ and ‘pre-loved’ were rife. Even people selling cars privately got in on the cosmetic-surgery act. In the 1980s backyard mechanics bought wrecks of the same make and model and constructed a ‘new’ car out of the good bits. This was Kiwi ingenuity at work, but the cars were not safe, and the government eventually banned the practice.

Used cars

For most of the 20th century New Zealand’s second-hand car trade was based on cars that had already been owned by New Zealanders. As new cars were expensive and hard to come by, the second-hand market flourished. Old cars remained on New Zealand roads for much longer than in other countries. They were sold privately or through dealers.

Removal of tariffs on used-car imports in the 1990s radically changed the car market. Old British ‘bangers’ were replaced by second-hand Japanese imports, many of which were only a few years old. Used imports went from 3% of new registrations in 1985 to 66% in 2005.

The oldest cars become collectable. The New Zealand Vintage Car Club was started in Christchurch in 1946 and spawned similar groups around the country.

  1. Janet Frame, To the is-land: an autobiography. Auckland: Hutchinson, 1984, p. 39. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock and Bronwyn Labrum, 'Second-hand trade - Commercial shop trading and dealing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock and Bronwyn Labrum, published 11 Mar 2010