Tedium - The Bargain Bin Evolves

The weirdness of the bin store.

Hunting for the end of the long tail • June 01, 2024

Today in Tedium: If you want to know whether a society is truly advanced, look at how it manages its glut. Does that glut just hang there in piles? (Yes.) Does it get incinerated, destroyed, or hidden? (Also yes.) Does it get recycled? (Not really.) Or does it get sold back to us, as a product—or perhaps, even as an event? (It turns out … yes it does.) In an era when glut can be delivered to our doorsteps in creative ways and with beautiful packaging, it can feel like we’ve found our societal peak. But the thing is, waste takes many distinct forms. Today’s Tedium ponders the rise of the “bin store,” and what it says about us. — Ernie @ Tedium

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Imagine pallets like these filled with literally hundreds of unwanted items from Amazon. (Anatole Shukla/Flickr)

If you haven’t heard about the bin store concept, let me tell you all about it

The bin store may be the defining retail business of the 2020s. It is what happens when commercialism has bled so far into every element of life that we even have to create a use case for the junk nobody wants.

These stores come with weird names, highlighting the randomness of their models or the deals they promise. They have names like “Price Break,” or “Super Deal Bin Store,” or “Treasure Hunt Liquidators,” or “Buried Treasures.” Their goal is not to give you a spotless experience. Far from it. Once you get out of big cities and into the suburbs, these spots are everywhere. They are known for their virality—they want you to take photos of your finds on Instagram.

At their core, these businesses are essentially giant arbitrage machines, leveraging the fact that returns are cheap in bulk, but may potentially, possibly have valuable things hiding within them. And you don’t have to wait for a bin store to open up to buy your own pile of crap. Whether directly (as Walmart does) or through a third-party, if you want to buy a pallet of random crap people didn’t want, you can buy those pallets on the cheap and see if you can sell them to people who do.

Want to buy a laptop? For the price of one laptop, you can buy, like a dozen from a site like BULQ. The challenge, of course, is that there’s no guarantee of the condition of any of this junk, nor is there a guarantee that this junk is something you might even want.

But if you’re transparent about this fact and turn it into a virtue, suddenly, what was once a downside of the product can become the product.

At its core, bin stores turned the entire concept of random shit in a box on its head. It’s not risky anymore. You know that the liability that stuff won’t work is high just by walking in the store. Now it’s an opportunity to get something for surprisingly cheap.

An example of a viral “bin store.”

In many ways, bin stores merge multiple concepts. They bring in the lightly-staffed nature of a dollar store, the discovery-minded approach of a thrift store, and the just-moving-stuff-around nature of a local Goodwill. (If you’ve ever been in a Goodwill outlet store, which tends to be a bit larger, the bin layout will feel familiar, even though the items in those are totally different.) But weirdly, they also make it feel like an event. The venues are structured around the “drop date” for the next round of stuff they’re selling. These bins will be picked over for a full week, but all the good stuff will be gone within 30 minutes.

And each Saturday, when the new bins make their debuts, everything costs a little more, but your odds of getting something good increase. And on Wednesdays, when the odds are high that everything has been completely picked over, they let you buy bag-loads of stuff for a flat fee.

It’s a brilliant model. It has made purchasing the byproduct of e-commerce waste feel like an adventure.

I, of course, had to do this. So, earlier this weekend, I went.

Anyone else find Marshalls an exhausting shopping experience? You may agree with me after watching this guy talk price tags.

It’s not the first time retail has put a fresh face on old stuff

Before we go any further, let’s take a step back here and consider the elements of the retail experience that led us to the bin store.

If you think about it, retail has been an attempt to sell us on the same thing repeatedly, for decades. The trend started with factory seconds, a concept that attempted to make some money from the failings of the industrial process. Rejection is a natural part of the manufacturing process. Some entrepreneurs have found reliable ways to make it profitable.

This eventually evolved into perfectly viable business models, defined by discount stores like Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, and ROSS, where we are willing to accept some weirdness in the business models because the stores ultimately save us money. (Later entrepreneurs got even more creative; think about dollar stores for a second.)

I wrote about some of this in my 2022 piece “Rejection in Four Parts,” which emerged during a period where I was trying to write about multiple disparate topics in a single post. The thing is, if you’re a consumer who rejects goods you no longer want, that stuff is still there. It has to go somewhere, and preferably they don’t want it to end up buried next to copies of E.T. in the New Mexico desert.

Manufacturers and retailers have to figure out a way to get rid of that inventory, and sometimes that leads to successful models—models that didn’t necessarily draw attention to themselves. For example, KB Toys was well-known for selling flashy self-branded toys and video game consoles, but they also sold a lot of cheap liquidated inventory as door-busters. They could offer that stuff cheaply—and maybe convince you to buy it while you’re on the hunt for a few more NES games.

I’m not explaining something weird here when I discuss this. Retail, in so many ways, is about trying to figure out ways to maximize the value of existing products to either maximize profits … or maximize losses.

If you are wondering WTF dropshipping is, here’s a quick explainer from Gabi Belle, who is already furious for you.

But what has changed in the past decade or so is that arbitrage has gone mainstream. Dropshipping is not a buzzword. It is something lots of people do to make money. When you can literally go on The Motley Fool and read articles about buying clearance TVs on Walmart to directly resell on Amazon, you know that we’re in weird territory.

It was only a matter of time until someone developed a dropshipping-style approach into a brick-and-mortar business. Hence, the bin store.

$3.7B

The estimated valuation of Whatnot, a live auction app that I would describe as the online equivalent of a bin store. The website and mobile app works similarly, in that sellers often buy pallets of returns and then try to convince you to buy them. It is like watching QVC, except people are selling things that have already been rejected by their original owners. (Full disclosure: I wanted to do a reported piece on the sellers of Whatnot, but nobody would talk to me! I was deeply disappointed by this, so let me do something I rarely do: If you or someone you know sells stuff on Whatnot, I still want to talk to you. Please reach out.)

There are literally hundreds of people in here. Many waited in line for long periods to get boxes opened so they could confirm they wanted the items. (Because you’re not supposed to open products.)

What I experienced when walking around a bin store

The store I went to, in the heart of suburban Virginia, is part of a small chain of franchises, most of which are based in the Mid-Atlantic or Plains states. The company, called DaaBIN, promotes itself as a potential way to get smartphones, Ryzen processors, Dyson vacuums, Beats headphones, and coffee machines. I saw none of these things during my tip through DaaBIN, a no-frills storefront with something like ten rows of bins, in which literally hundreds of people of all ages and walks of life dug through, in hopes of finding something worth their time.

(It is strange that this model took off at the time it did, by the way. It feels like everyone should be wearing a mask. But almost nobody is. The website for DaaBIN makes clear they take no liability on this front: “Masks are a personal choice. If you’d like to wear one you can, if not, you don’t have to. Masks are NOT required in our store.”)

Not often I go into a store only to be handed a bag from another retail outlet, but let’s roll with it.

When I entered this store, celebrating its first anniversary as part of a big event, I was handed an IKEA bag. No, not a branded DaaBIN bag—like a literal shopping bag from IKEA. What a weird choice, I thought—until I realized the place, located in an otherwise pin-quiet shopping plaza, was absolutely packed, and I decided not to question it.

There was a DJ who played mainstream country music over a pair of loudspeakers still plastered with their original stickers. (Were the loudspeakers a bin pickup?) At one point, he went out of his way to emphasize that he was playing Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like,” the worst song of the 2020s and a tune literally nobody needs to emphasize.

He frequently played up contests and deals, and occasionally asked questions of the audience that implied a ramshackle experience. “Did somebody lose their vape?” is a question I presume will be asked repeatedly when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse finally show up.

I first heard about bin stores about a year ago, and ever since, I’ve wanted to check one out, not necessarily because I was trying to buy a bunch of random stuff, but because it was clearly a new concept that could not have existed 20 years ago.

These are stores that exist because e-commerce makes buying random stuff so easy, and returning it just as easy. Much of that stuff cannot be resold. Maybe if the device is high-end, like a laptop, Amazon will find a way to recirculate it as a refurbished item. But there are so many objects out there that don’t neatly fit into resellable territory.

During this experience, I saw quite a few of them. There were more packages of adult diapers than I was particularly comfortable with. There was pre-packaged food, none of which I could ever see myself eating. Parts for random machines, like printer cartridges, and gadgets that their makers made for extremely specific purposes, quickly got pushed aside. I spotted a bidet attachment at one point.

The world’s laziest poster.

Some of the products were particularly lazy. Their badness was impossible to hide when separated from the benefits of the long tail. One example of this was a plastic container full of posters with vinyl-record-sized pictures of Kanye West album covers, along with track listings. On one side was the cover for The College Dropout; on the other was The Life of Pablo. At least whoever made this cheap piece of junk honoring the career of our most controversial rapper picked the correct starting and stopping points.

Nearly everything here got all the way through the manufacturing process, sold to somebody, only to get returned back to an e-commerce retailer. We are witnessing rejection at scale, thousands of people breaking up with inanimate objects.

That’s the obvious part.

What’s not so obvious is that many returns were still in the original boxes, with the addresses of the original purchasers fully exposed, which obviously highlights a privacy risk that none of us actually think about. (So, if you’re going to return something, do yourself a favor: Take it out of the shipping container.)

What are the odds of this cosmic joke? Honestly?

On one side of the store, I saw a transparent bag containing approximately 100 pre-sharpened pencils. I made a joke about it on Mastodon. Half an hour later, I found a box of 100 pencil sharpeners on the exact opposite side of the store. It turns out I don’t need to make jokes about it, because they write themselves.

In a world where everyone is increasingly freaking out about artificial intelligence, here’s what we do with the real stuff that is a genuine byproduct of the commercial internet era—we lump it into random bins of junk and have random people look through it to see if they can find anything good. In other words, the opposite of what AI is supposed to do for us.

While Google is trying to emphasize that it has all the answers, retail’s most innovative concept involves telling us to do the work ourselves, with a little flash but zero polish—an absolute flip of where things were a quarter-century ago. It’s scary and, I won’t lie, somewhat addictive.

Anyway, I ended up with two things: an HDMI cable that I thought could help fix a problem I was having with my laptop, and a PC power supply surprisingly still buried in its shrink wrap. The power supply had a brand name known in that specific sector, Thermaltake, but was notably the subject of a Linus Tech Tips video highlighting how terrible it was. Oh well—I got it for $7, so I guess I can’t complain!

When I was done, they gave me a brisket sandwich and a cupcake, something few stores do—but all stores should. (If I waited long enough, I would have gotten a free hot dog from a nearby food truck that was just opening up as I exited.) I didn’t have a traditional bag when exiting this business. No, they gave me a trash bag, and not even one with the plastic ties.

It was the weirdest retail experience of my entire life, and I’ve been to Stew Leonard’s. If the mask thing doesn’t freak you out and you can handle the germiness of hundreds of people digging through hundreds of other people’s trash, I encourage you to try it once, just to experience something truly unique. I’m still on the fence about it being good. But it is certainly unique.

In the same plaza as DaaBIN, quietly sitting there, almost neglected, was a Goodwill location, nobly doing its job as a public service.

After eating my brisket sandwich, but before eating my cupcake, I walked into the Goodwill, and found a nearly-silent building. I noticed that a keyboard similar to the one I spotted at DaaBIN, but rejected after noting it was a membrane keyboard, was selling for twice as much as the one I had the opportunity to buy in the piles of junk, haphazardly sorted, only to be haphazardly torn apart by hundreds of strangers before and after me.

Over/under on whether the vase made it?

I’ve written a lot about how I find going to Goodwill locations creatively fulfilling. I often link fascinating finds from ShopGoodwill on my social pages. It’s great to have thrift stores that offer us inspiration.

But post-DaaBIN, I realize that even creatively fulfilling experiences can be made chaotic. The people in that weird room, me included, dug into bins of stuff utterly devoid of personality, much of it created because someone thought some sucker was going to buy it. The work of manufacturers, of marketers, and of creators. It all ends up in one of these bins. And it ended up here because, at least in the case of the specific item, it failed at its job.

And it wasn’t like we were making friends in the process. People bumped into me. I bumped into people. People insisted I move out of the way, because I wasn’t digging fast enough. I had to move quickly to ensure that the shrink-wrapped power supply, literally the only good thing I had seen in the bins, ended up in my hands. We were there for the deals.

Just as the internet is screwing us up, so is commerce. I don’t blame DaaBIN or any other “bin store” for this. I do think, though, that this is the natural end-stage result, where we land after a quarter century of the internet telling us that all we need to get more stuff is to press a button and wait a day or two.

I encourage you to experience the bin store, because this is what we are, for better or for worse.

--

Have you had a bin store experience? I’d love to hear about it. Give me a shout over on Mastodon or Bluesky.

Find this one fascinating? Share it with a pal!

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