Getting smart with used handsets

Getting smart with used handsets
A Pakistani mobile phone vendor with customers at his roadside stall in Rawalpindi.

HONG KONG - In Tsim Sha Tsui, a busy shopping district in Kowloon, Hong Kong, a Pakistani mobile phone vendor inspects more than 100 used smartphones made by Taiwan's HTC, turning them on and off one by one. The task takes several hours.

The vendor, who visits Hong Kong "two to three times a month" to buy used handsets, sells them to shops in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Where do these secondhand but still usable gadgets come from? Smartphone users in rich countries, looking to upgrade, sell or trade in their old devices. Many of these find their way to Hong Kong and from there to countries around the region.

While the battle for supremacy between Apple and Samsung, say, over who has the coolest new model may grab headlines, the fight for sales of used handsets among traders in China and Southeast Asia is just as fierce -- and may play a bigger role in bringing smartphones to the masses.

Center of the action

Secondhand smartphones are spreading globally at breakneck speed. One industry forecast predicts sales of 257 million used devices worldwide in 2018, up more than fourfold from the 53 million sold in 2013, thanks to soaring demand in rapidly growing Asian markets such as the Philippines, Indonesia and India.

Both "push" and "pull" factors are at work. Developed countries are supplying more used smartphones, as handset makers and telecom companies step up buyback efforts to encourage customers to purchase the latest models. Meanwhile, demand is growing in Southeast Asia and Latin America for cheaper used smartphones because most people cannot afford to buy new.

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