You can learn a lot by taking a rare look inside the business that spent $3 billion for our used electronic devices last year.
LEWISVILLE, Texas — They go everywhere with us. And they hold our deepest secrets and our undivided attention for hours every day…until we swap them out for a newer cell phone, box them up and send them away. But our old phones don’t go too far, at first.
If you trade in your old device for a new one with your wireless provider, “it is a good chance that we are going to receive it, refurbish it, and resell it,” said Assurant General Manager Jeremy Purvis.
Purvis recently gave us a tour inside Assurant’s second-largest warehouse facility in the world, where thousands of electronic devices, especially mobile phones, arrive by the truckload every day.
The company is one of the largest players in the world in the booming business of recycling, refurbishing and reselling used cell phones, tablets and smartwatches.
Old phones are big business
Purvis says Assurant spent $3 Billion last year to acquire those old devices, which helped to keep a lot of unnecessary waste from being dumped into the environment, “Last year’s [refurbished] devices were about 23 metric tons that could have gone into landfills that were instead repurposed and resold.”
It’s not an entirely altruistic enterprise. He acknowledges there’s also tons of money to be made in this secondhand industry, “We have seen a 30% growth year over year in demand for certified pre-owned devices. The overall used cell phone market last year was about $13.3 billion. We have seen an increased dependency on certified pre-owned devices.”
The Lewisville warehouse, which employs a thousand workers, with 300 more expected to be hired, runs three shifts, day and night. Purvis says, “Our goal is to have everything from front to back in less than 14 days.”
And here’s why: “Device values go down about 1% per week so we have got to move very quickly.”
One Texas warehouse with 4 million cell phones. And yes, some bricks!
Last year, this facility alone processed about 4 million of the 20 million used devices Assurant received in 2021. A phone that enters one end of the warehouse is plugged in, turned on, wiped of all data, checked, tested, buffed, repaired and scrutinized by humans and robots.
Those robots are really helpful, taking detailed digital images of each device and scanning it for scratches human eyes might not see.
The humans have seen some other obvious issues. Purvis says people wanting to trade in a phone sometimes make mistakes or try to pull outright scams, “If you send us an iPhone 12 when you told us it was an iPhone 13, we are probably going to tell you. We see people return demo phones that are not real phones. We see people return bricks because they are about the same weight as the phone in the box.”
Once phones are verified as actual phones and are fully refurbished, artificial intelligence helps a mechanized sorting system to grade the phones, separate them and ready them to ship out the other end of the warehouse to specific stores across the country, and sometimes internationally.
This is the peak season. And the reason for that season…is Apple
Apple devices account for a huge portion of the resale business. So when the company recently released its iPhone 14 line, an avalanche of boxes of traded-in phones started pouring in.
Apple stock traders are always interested in what apple phone traders are doing, because it helps them glean how many numbers of phones the company is selling, and therefore how well it is doing.
We don’t know Apple sales figures, but thanks to Purvis, we do know this about trade-ins: “We are a month in and we are setting new records. This is about the fifth year that trade-ins have been setting new volume records year over year.”
He says we usually keep our phones now for 3.5 years. But interestingly, Purvis has noticed that Apple’s newest phone appears to have a lot of “early adopters”. He says that because when the iPhone 14 was unveiled, many people started trading in models that aren’t that old, “The iPhone 12 is the highest-volume trade we are receiving right now”.
Maybe people are turning those in for deep discounts on the iPhone 13 as well. Either way, Purvis says the Apple-driven volume of trade-ins is up again.