Saying No to Upgrades

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In today’s world, where many consumers feel a two-year-old cell phone is outdated and a car without “new car smell” is sad, we’re taught constantly that upgrades are necessary, and that gadgets and gear must be replaced regularly and often.

Yet the NY Times recently unearthed a contrarian trend: There are people out there who, crazy as it may seem, hate the idea of throwing away or replacing perfectly good merchandise. These upgrade refuseniks actually try to get the most value and the most use out of the stuff they buy, before feeling the need to purchase something new. Crazy, right?

The “upgrade cycle” has slowed for many products, the Times reports:

Consumers are holding onto new cars for a record 63.9 months, up 4.5 months from a year ago and 14 percent since the end of 2008, according to Polk, a research firm. In fact, the firm said, when used cars are included, the average length of car ownership stands at 52.2 months, also a record.

Industry analysts also report that people on average upgrade their cellphones every 18 months, up from every 16 months just a few years ago. They hold onto their laptops an average of 4 years and 4 months, a month longer than they did a year ago, though that figure has been creeping up since 2000.

OK, so these are baby steps for the classic “use it up, wear it out” mantra. And who knows whether people are easing off the upgrades because they have to—no money—or because they’re realizing all the upgrades are unnecessary. For plenty of consumers, it’s probably a combination of the two factors: After being forced to skip upgrades due to the economy, they’ve come to a realization: “Hey, you know what? Maybe I don’t need a new cell phone every year.” For largely the same reasons, many consumers felt forced to turn to generic store brand necessities like shampoo and cereal—and they’re sticking with them even after they don’t have to scale back because these products offer good value.

Following the Times’ anti-upgrade lead, Lifehacker asked its readers to offer opinions in a poll asking whether they’re holding onto their gadgets longer lately. Roughly 60% of respondents said they’ve been doing just that, answering either “Absolutely–no telling when I might regret an unnecessary upgrade these days,” or “Yes, mostly because I don’t see constant upgrades as necessary.”

About one-third answered “Can’t really say for sure–I use my stuff until an upgrade makes sense,” while less then 3% were clearly in the upgrade-early-and-often camp, answering, “No. If anything, I’m buying stuff more frequently, because it’s cheaper.”

One of the types of consumers who inevitably overspend is the early adopter/constant upgrader. If that’s you, thanks for keeping the economy humming. I hope you enjoy all of your gadgets, and I hope you have lots of money. (Also, I hope you recycle.)

But for the rest of us, being an early adopter seems silly, and the upgrade treadmill is beyond annoying. Predictably, the original iPad—which is basically a time suck, though admittedly a fun one—is now $100-$150 cheaper after yesterday’s announcement of the iPad 2. It’s also not difficult to predict, as Techland reported, that the iPad 3 will be way better than 2. So who would bother to buy the 2, especially when the third gen may be available as soon as fall of 2011? Again, hopefully it’s somebody who really enjoys gadgets, and who hopefully has lots of money (and recycles).

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