Back Market, Remade … the juicy and opaque business of refurbished smartphones

White coats, neon lights and silence … We are not in the surgical emergency room, but in the Itancia workshops. Here in the middle of the Angevin landscape, around thirty employees operate 700 old smartphones with open hearts every day. The tasks performed require concentration, especially when a battery needs to be replaced – a maneuver that takes seven minutes. “You have to go slow: if you pierce it, it can explode,” explains one repairman as you remove the lithium rectangle. This has happened to him once, as the black halo on his desk testifies.

In this case, to limit the damage, “we immediately put the smartphone in a bag that limits the heat and everyone comes out. But it is rare, about once a year,” explains the production manager. Most of the time the handling is not so A series of tests of 30 to 50 checkpoints are performed to ensure that everything works before setting off for a new life.

Like this company, which will soon expand its premises, it is unlikely that reconditioning players will see the activity weaken. While the market for new smartphones fell by 6.5% in France in 2018, according to GfK, sales of used phones increased by 7% the same year, ie. 2.1 million units sold. This means that every tenth Frenchman now chooses a used device … There are many reasons for this enthusiasm, listed by Thibaud Hug de Larauze, co-founder of the Back Market site: “The best-selling phones date back two years and are available now at almost half price, with guarantee …

This approach seduces beyond ecology enthusiasts. The discounts are really impressive, for products that are generally satisfactory. Pioneers see their intuition rewarded: Back Market, Recommerce and Remade, at the forefront, boomer. They are present online and at retail partners. But everyone goes into it. You can now find recycled iPhones and Samsung directly at telecom operators, in supermarkets and department stores (Boulanger, Fnac Darty or Electro Dépôt) and at historical e-retailers (Amazon, Cdiscount or Veepee, the former Venteprivee .com). So many choices can be confusing, especially since this market is not the most transparent.

The first unknown is the origin of these smartphones. Impossible to know when buying. Buyers prefer iPhones that are considered rugged if prices in new condition have exploded above 1000 euros. The sector’s little secret is that in order to get very large quantities of second-hand goods, you need to pick up supplies from the United States – where Yoann Valensi and Laure Cohen, co-founders of the Cidsteal website, get their supplies first. “We have contracts with US operators. People pay for very expensive packages, with the phone included, replaced regularly.

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Abandoned, slightly worn units are a pleasure for renovation workers. This is even more true for Remade, which is 100% focused on Apple products. This heavyweight sold 500,000 units in France last year, for around 140 million euros in turnover. Ludovic Saint-Aroman, marketing director, says he prefers large suppliers: “Operators, insurance companies and wholesalers, American and European.”

There are other sources of supply, sometimes more random. At C interpreteal, 15% of the treated units are customers’ old models, which thus obtain a discount on their new purchases. Other models come from large physical retailers: Boulanger sends them, for example, smartphones returned by customers, cancellation cases, exhibition models. It is even more varied for Back Market, a website launched in France in 2014 and already available in the US, Germany, Spain and Italy (230 million euros in business volume last year).

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As a marketplace, it gathers offers from a wide range of merchants. There are small suppliers, such as Angevin Itancia, all rated for their reliability. Itancia has achieved a good score, especially by supplying itself with “corporate fleets”: professional smartphones are replaced regularly and generally in good condition. Finally a surprise: some of the best Back Market providers are small thrift stores, Cash Converters or Easy Cash. Experts and responsive, they are often highly rated.

Buyers are also largely unaware of what the actual operating condition of their new phone will be. All the salesmen explain that they perform several tests on recovered smartphones in their workshops. They control the operation of microphones and speakers, the camera or the screen. But impossible to know, for example, whether the screen on the smartphone has been repaired – an operation that very often leads to crashes or screen problems. Marketplaces try to advertise the color as much as possible by presenting quality levels, from “like new” to “presence of significant scratches”. Above all, they offer reassuring guarantees and promise responsive after-sales service.

At Back Market, an algorithm highlights the best sellers, assisted by 50 Bordeaux employees, who are responsible for monitoring the reliability of these independent merchants. This effort has allowed the site to divide the breakdown rate within six months of purchase by two: 10% of the products a year ago, against 5% today. In its high-tech factory based in Avranches (Manche), Remade has chosen an advanced approach. All smartphones received are disassembled, cleaned, polished and processed in chemical baths by its 500 workers. The rear hulls are even colored and reanodised to harden the aluminum, and all models are equipped with a new battery …

Because the big black spot in this market remains the issue of the battery, which is sometimes very defective and unable to last all day. This is the problem that is most often cited by dissatisfied people on online forums. Cidateal offers every customer the opportunity to choose a new battery for an additional 25 euros, “its cost price” (a quarter of buyers do). At Back Market, “it must be at least 80% equal to the new product, otherwise it is too disappointing for the consumer”. Same policy at Itancia: “Philosophically, it would be absurd to replace all the batteries when they are 80% good”, emphasizes Lionel Troteseil, marketing director, if we cycle environmentally friendly. Paradox: on the day of our visit to the site, a large batch of iPhones from the USA showed 100% new batteries, which had already been replaced by another service provider …

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