16 Aug 11 Dirty Secrets You Don’t Know About Pawn Shops
Instead, pawn shops are in the distinctly unglamorous but useful business of loaning small amounts of money — $150, on average — to people who need cash fast. The industry serves millions people annually, but if you’ve never set foot inside a pawn shop, the whole process probably seems a bit mysterious. To clear up the confusion, we talked to a pawn industry expert who helped clue us in to some of the big truths about pawn shops, how they work, and whom they serve.
“There are somewhere around 12,000 or 13,000 pawn shops in the U.S. Around 30 million Americans rely on them to either make ends meet or to buy and sell used merchandise out of convenience,” Jordan Birnholtz, the founder of PawnGuru, a website that helps people find pawn shops interested in their items, told The Cheat Sheet.
Pawn shops provide short-term, collateral-based loans to consumers. Getting a loan is fairly straightforward. You bring an item to a pawn shop. The pawnbroker looks it over. If he thinks it’s something he could eventually sell, he will offer to loan you a fraction of its value. If you accept the offer, you get cash on the spot. You also have a set time — usually around one to four months — to pay back the money you borrowed from the pawnbroker, plus any interest and fees. If you can’t repay the loan, you lose your collateral (the pawned item), which the pawnbroker can then sell to make his profit.
2. Pawnshops are a financial lifeline for some
The pawn-shop loans are an attractive proposition for those on the financial fringes for a couple of reasons. Not only can a pawn loan be obtained without a credit check, but the debt is relatively low-risk. If you can’t repay your pawnbroker, you lose the item, but you won’t receive a black mark on your credit report. Compare that to high-interest payday loans, which can easily trap consumers in a spiraling cycle of debt.
Pawnshops “are not the happiest place on Earth,” Birnholtz admitted. But the industry has cleaned up its act in recent decades. “I think that the level of professionalism and cleanliness and service has improved really dramatically in the pawn industry over the past 30 or so years.”
Go to a pawn shop today, and you’re likely to find yourself in a clean, well-lit store, stocked with quality used merchandise. Some are even turning to Instagram to sell their luxury goods. And the idea that pawn shops are filled with items of dubious provenance? It’s just not true, according to industry groups, who say less than 1% of items people try to pawn turn out to be stolen. Legitimate pawn shops check ID and work with law enforcement to make sure the things they’re selling aren’t stolen property.
4. It’s not like what you see on Pawn Stars
Pawn Stars is “not necessarily representative of how most people use pawn shops because they deal in really, really specialized items,” Birnholtz said. “They’re a big shop with probably pretty good margins, so they can afford to pay lots of money for lots of unique items. Whereas most pawn shops can’t do that.”
5. Pawn offers vary — a lot
That vast disparity in loan offers was one reason Birnholtz created PawnGuru. Rather than spending an afternoon visiting different pawn shops to get the best deal (or unwittingly settling for a low-ball offer), people can now go online, share the item they want to pawn (or sell outright), and get quotes back from local pawn shops. “That gives people the power to negotiate with multiple shops at once to figure out which one is actually going to give them the best deal,” he said.
6. You can pawn almost anything
Although pawn shops are interested in anything of value they can eventually sell, some categories of items do tend to do better than others. “I would say that jewelry, musical instruments, and game consoles — plus high-end electronics that aren’t phones — do well, whereas digital accessories and electronics that go obsolete really quick don’t do so hot,” Birnholtz said.
7. You should know your item’s worth
“You’re going to get a little bit less than for what it closed for on eBay because in essence you’re paying for liquidity,” Birnholtz said. “You’re getting your money today, you’re reducing hassle and that’s part of the advantage a pawn shop provides”
8. Pawn loans aren’t cheap
9. Most people get their items back
10. Many pawn shop users are unemployed
The same PawnGuru survey found people generally start using pawn shops at two points in their life: either when they’re relatively young or when they’re in or nearing retirement age. Some of the older first-time pawn shop users might be turning to pawning to supplement limited or fixed incomes, PawnGuru speculated.
11. Many pawn shop users have had bad experiences with traditional banks
“We find that around three-quarters of our users either personally or have a close friend or loved one who has had a memorably negative experience with a bank. That’s 40% higher than the national average,” Birnholtz said. Of the PawnGuru users who do have bank accounts (and many don’t), they’re twice as likely to have incurred overdraft charges or other bank fees. That suggests traditional banks aren’t doing a good job of meeting the needs of certain consumers and that pawn shops are stepping in to fill the void, according to Birnholtz.
“People are turning to an alternative lending and finance system because it’s really difficult to keep your money and to build your wealth with a mainstream bank when you are low income,” he said. “There’s this very high level, early in the pipeline problem with how people store and access their money in the U.S. I think that pushes people into situations where they are likelier to be financially insecure and I think as a result they turn to things like payday lending, to pawn shops and to other emergency financial services.”