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Second-hand trade

by Kerryn Pollock and Bronwyn Labrum

Charity-run op shops with their dusty piles of second-hand clothing and bric-a-brac have long been a treasure trove for fans of vintage items – as well as a source of cheap goods for people on a budget. Second-hand trade has also gone high-tech in the 2000s, with the huge popularity of online auction site Trade Me.

Commercial shop trading and dealing

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.

    • Janet Frame, To the is-land: an autobiography. Auckland: Hutchinson, 1984, p. 39. Back

Charitable and informal trading

Opportunity shops

Opportunity (op) shops, which sell donated goods to fund charitable services, were started by the Salvation Army in late-19th-century Britain. The first shops in New Zealand opened in the late 1920s. In the 2000s they were run by all the major religious denominations, as well as the Red Cross, hospices and other non-profit charitable organisations.

Clothing is the mainstay of op shops. They vary in style – ‘everything from the shack filled with bags behind the local church or kindergarten to huge marts with racks of clothes and rows of furniture’, wrote one journalist.1 Over time op shops moved into proper store fronts in suburbs and, increasingly, town centres – not necessarily physically close to the church or charity.

Crowd control

The scent of a bargain and the possibility of treasure among the junk can lead to unruly behaviour at jumble sales. Writer Rita Snowden was involved in charity jumble sales in the 1930s: ‘[C]rowds came – with unmannerly pushing and shoving all too often so that I still think of the jumble sales as “the lowest form of human activity” ... At one stage, a courageous male member of our staff stationed himself at the foot of our steep hill, to turn back under guard, outside buyers who came down pulling stolen goods out of their bloomer legs.’2

The poor and the budget-conscious used op shops rather than buying new goods from mainstream shops and department stores. The shops were also a popular destination for treasure hunters. Antique and collectable dealers sourced stock in op shops, and film-industry people bought clothing and props there.

Op shops relied on the goodwill of volunteers to run them, and originally provided a social and philanthropic outlet for middle-aged, middle-class women who were not in paid work. In the 2000s there were fewer such women, and some charities became more businesslike in their approach to fundraising. As a result the shops changed the way they operated. Some became professionalised. They looked similar to fashion boutiques and antique stores, and charged higher prices than before.

Fairs and jumble sales

Schools, churches and other community and charitable groups have held fundraising fairs and jumble sales since the 19th century. These allowed low-income people to buy cheap second-hand goods without going through a ‘middle man’. They were fun-filled events, and the stalls were popular for what the Wanganui Herald described in 1904 as their ‘heterogenous, miscellaneous (but here our adjectives fail) assortment of every conceivable shape and size’3 – something for everyone.

Prestigious prizes


School fairs in wealthy areas often have prestigious goods and services on offer in addition to the enduringly popular jumble stalls. In 2006 the Scots College gala in Wellington offered a week’s stay in a French villa, while Ngaio School’s fair had a helicopter ride, a new computer and original artwork up for grabs at auction.


In the 2000s schools held fairs (‘gala days’) and car-boot sales to top up government funding. ‘White elephant’ jumble stalls remained a mainstay of these events. High-decile schools – those in wealthier areas – were more likely to run fairs than their low-decile counterparts because parents were more easily able to donate goods and time, and the surrounding community had the ready cash to spend. High-decile schools also got less government funding and relied on parents and the community for extra money.

Garage sales

Garage sales have long been a regular Saturday-morning fixture in New Zealand. They were a way for householders to get rid of unwanted goods and make pocket money. Dealers and collectors frequented garage sales looking for a bargain, while neighbours and passers-by dropped in more casually. The first rush of eager punters through the garage door and buyer-seller haggling was expertly captured by the 2008 film Second hand wedding.

In the 2000s garage sales became less common because people were increasingly likely to dispose of unwanted goods for better profits on websites such as Trade Me. However, tough economic times and rising unemployment in 2009 led to a renewed increase in garage sales as people looked for simple ways to make extra money.


Traditionally second-hand goods were advertised for sale in newspapers. Trade & Exchange magazine (started in 1981) was the best-known advertising publication. Fairs and garage sales also relied on home-made signs tacked to neighbourhood fences. In the 2000s social networking websites, email and texting were new means of advertising.


Online trading

Auction and trading sites

Online trading of second-hand goods started in New Zealand in the 1990s. The first major trading site which allowed members of the public to trade second-hand goods with one another was Trade & Exchange Online (launched in 1998). It was followed by Trade Me, where people sell goods through online auctions, in 1999. Smaller players such as Zillion (2005) and Sella (2008) followed.

Trade Me overwhelmingly dominated this market in the 2000s and was frequently the most visited website in New Zealand. In June 2009 Trade Me had more than half a million visitors each day, while Sella had just over 10,000. In 2009, 52% of items listed and 60% of items sold on Trade Me (excluding cars and property) were second hand.

Millionaire Me

Sam Morgan was just 22 years old when he set up online auction site Trade Me in 1999. Eight years later Trade Me was sold to media publishing giant John Fairfax Holdings for $700 million. Morgan received $200 million, which made him one of the wealthiest people in New Zealand. His parents, who invested money in Trade Me to get it started, received $50 million and started a charity with some of the proceeds.

Some antique and second-hand dealers embraced online trading and used existing sites or set up their own websites which complemented shop-based sales.

Online car sales

In the 2000s used cars were increasingly traded online as well as in traditional auctioneering warehouses and car yards. A 2009 survey showed that websites were the most popular way prospective buyers researched cars. Trade Me was the most popular website by far – it was used by 85% of buyers, compared with 34% for other comparable sites.

Online communities

Most online trading websites have community message boards or blogs where people interested in particular antique and second-hand goods can chat about their interests and seek and offer advice. In June 2009 Trade Me’s most popular collectors’ chatroom was the ‘stamp club’, followed by the ‘coin club’ and the ‘lantern and cooker (stove) collectors thread’.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock and Bronwyn Labrum, 'Second-hand trade', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock and Bronwyn Labrum, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010