Perceived Obsolescence: How To Save Money by Keeping Products Longer


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Ever wonder why we sometimes feel the need to replace our perfectly good possessions? The consumer market is constantly evolving, and manufacturers are always finding ways to persuade the public to purchase the latest and greatest. This can instill the phenomenon of perceived obsolescence within us, conjuring up feelings of insecurity, stress, anxiety, and loss or lack of control over our life or material possessions. Not to mention, creating unnecessary waste that has taken a toll on the environment.

Learn more about perceived obsolescence below, along with some simple ways you can save money by keeping your products longer — and in the process.

What Is Perceived Obsolescence?


Perceived obsolescence occurs when consumers believe that they need to buy new or updated products even though their existing products work just fine. According to Robin Copernicus, a behavioral economics and consumer decision-making expert, perceived obsolescence can have consumers chasing after the next best thing instead of getting the most use out of current resources. Perceived obsolescence can also end up creating more digital and physical waste.

Trends are very influential when it comes to the sale of clothing and technology. With this phenomenon, products have become more appealing to consumers based on their aesthetic and demand, rather than their function.

Perceived vs. Planned Obsolescence


Perceived and planned obsolescence are closely related, but stem from different points of view. Planned obsolescence occurs when companies utilize the “design to fail” technique, which instills feelings of perceived obsolescence in consumers — the need to replace their items. Companies will purposely make their products wear out so that the buyer will have to replace them, or they will update and “improve” their products on a regular basis.

Retailers heavily rely on advertising to persuade potential buyers that their existing product is out of style or out of date (planned obsolescence). This is the company’s way of making the consumer believe that they need to have the latest product in order to have an improved perception of themselves (perceived obsolescence).

Causes of the Obsolescence Phenomena

There are many causes of perceived obsolescence. According to Dr. Brian Wind, clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of JourneyPure, “Perceived obsolescence can be caused by advertising that persuades consumers that the product they are using is outdated and old-fashioned.” This in turn affects their perception of themselves.

This advertising tactic positions the new product as being trendy and advanced, which leads consumers to have the perception that if they had the new product, they in turn would be seen as “cool” and on-trend. Consumers then choose to switch to new products even if their existing product works perfectly fine.

The History of Perceived Obsolescence

Though it didn’t have a name at the time, perceived obsolescence can be seen as early as the 1920s. In 1924, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the president of General Motors, began to have the vehicle manufacturers produce annual design changes to encourage buyers to purchase new replacements early.

The term “perceived obsolescence” came into use in the 1950s when marketers realized how much they could sell by making consumers feel that the product they already owned was too old and they needed a new one. But according to Mark Varnas of Red9, “Consumers may not buy into this marketing technique if they feel as though it is an attempt by the company to push them into making an unnecessary purchase.”

4 Key Perceived Obsolescence Examples

There are many examples of this phenomenon. Perceived obsolescence is most apparent in markets that are heavily reliant on consumer trends, such as clothing and electronics. Below are some key examples of perceived obsolescence:

Clothing: Clothing, especially fast fashion, is a market that heavily relies on trends. Fashion always dictates what’s “in.” Every season, manufacturers produce new clothing for retail stores to sell.

Consumers feel the need to keep up with this fashion cycle by replacing their perfectly functional clothing with something new. This also creates waste, as older clothing is deemed “unfashionable” and is discarded. Fast fashion is said to use up 79 trillion liters of water in the production phase and causes 92 million tons of waste per year.

Technology: Many consumers feel the need to upgrade to the latest smartphone every time there’s a new model release in order to feel on top of the trend, even though their old phone works just as well.

This produces a large amount of electronic waste — it’s estimated that Americans toss 416,000 mobile phones every day (151 million phones a year). Additionally, the United Nations predicts that global e-waste could increase to 74.7 million tons by 2030.

Auto: The automobile industry can also cause consumers to fall victim to perceived obsolescence. For example, car companies will continuously release new models of the same car, making consumers feel the need to upgrade.

Manufacturers will design the car to look slightly “better,” upgrade its interior or even change the engine. Once the new model is launched, the older model looks dated, making purchasing the new one more appealing to the consumer.

Sports apparel: Supporting your favorite sports team often means that you want the latest and greatest sports jersey. The professional sports industry is known for upgrading merchandise to feature new designs, such as upgrading the logo and switching up the colors.

Doing this causes perceived obsolescence by making the fan feel like they are less of a supporter if they wear last season’s jersey and creates the need to buy the newest products. Some sports teams reported that after updating their uniforms, fan apparel purchases doubled.

6 Ways to Defeat Perceived Obsolescence and Save Money in the Long Run

Instead of constantly throwing out perfectly good items and replacing them with (usually more expensive) newer versions, find ways to keep your products longer. This can be done by extending the life of your possessions, reusing materials and repairing items that are broken.

Adopt a more minimalist and sustainable lifestyle by not giving into the purchasing habits caused by perceived obsolescence. According to experts, here are six ways to defeat perceived obsolescence and examples of ways you can reuse your items instead of replacing them:

  • Use the same product in new ways: Copernicus says that learning how to use the same product in new ways is essential in combating perceived obsolescence. Sometimes consumers get anchored to the original function of what the product was intended for and aren’t as creative in coming up with new ways to use it. For example, a novel use for a coffee can could be a flower pot. Practicing using your product in other ways can increase the value of the product.
  • Hold off on buying altogether: Think twice before buying a new product — if your old product still works and serves its purpose, then you don’t need to replace it. Plus, this can help you save money in the long run!
  • Purchase items from used clothing sites: Instead of giving into fast fashion, give used clothing a new life and purchase from secondhand stores or shop from used clothing retailers, such as .
  • Reuse electronics: Think of new ways to use the old model of your smartphone, like using it as your dedicated music device for the gym or gifting it as a toy to a little one. If your old technology is beyond repair, find ways to properly recycle it. Check with your local technology recycling centers for more information.
  • Buy a used car instead: If you’re actually in need of a car, consider purchasing a used one. Breathing new life into a used car is not only easier on the wallet, but good for the environment — some older models have better fuel efficiency and the batteries in the new hybrid cars can contaminate water, soil and air after they’re discarded.
  • Make it yourself: Instead of running to the store to buy something new, see if you can create a fun DIY project and make your own products. Consider making your own or sewing your own clothing. DIY projects are also better for the environment if you take advantage of things you already have around the house.

Perceived obsolescence can be hard to avoid, but with these simple tips and tricks, you can save money — and, most importantly, the environment — by keeping products longer. For more retailers who sell used goods, check out these for additional savings.

Sources: Nature Reviews Earth & Environment | Statista | WBUR | The Washington Post | Hazardous Waste Experts

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