Apple and other smartphone makers also offer their own trade-in programs, as do some third-party resellers. Apple is currently offering discounts up to $500 for the iPhone 12 lineup if you trade in your old smartphone, depending on its age and condition.
The trade-in values of old smartphones can be surprisingly high because the trade-in has become a critical piece of the device’s lifecycle. Beyond providing users with an opportunity to get a new phone for a fraction of its price, it helps companies boost sales by prompting more frequent upgrades, gives carriers a way to lure customers into long contracts, delivers more affordable devices for secondary markets and provides raw materials that companies can reuse to make new phones more environmentally friendly.
The upgrade push
Trade-in programs give wireless carriers and manufacturers a way to entice new customers and prevent existing customers from switching away from their products — as we saw with AT&T’s free iPhone deal.
“It’s probably the closest thing to reviving subsidies, which were rife in the US when the iPhone first hit the market,” said David McQueen, research director at tech advisory firm ABI Research.
A major issue trade-ins aim to address is the growing tendency of smartphone users to hold onto their devices for longer, often skipping a model or two (sometimes even more) before buying a new one.
“The motivation for subscribers to upgrade smartphones has been a problem over the past few years with most flagships having very little differentiation with their predecessors,” McQueen said.
“At the moment there does not seem to be any real reason shown by the [carriers] to upgrade to 5G apart from it being marketed as just another ‘G,'” McQueen added.
It’s too early to know how well the iPhone 12 line will sell, but if 5G isn’t a huge draw, trade-ins could help move additional upgrades.
Back on the market
Smartphones often have a shelf life and utility that goes well beyond the frequency of new model releases, giving companies an additional source of revenue even for older devices.
McQueen says phones that aren’t resold by carriers or smartphone companies might also end up with insurance firms to replace lost or broken devices for their customers or sent to emerging markets where consumers tend to be more price conscious.
The programs also sell refurbished phones to users willing to purchase slightly older premium models, according to analysts.
“[It’s] kind of like the used car market; there are some people who would rather have an older Mercedes than a 2021 Hyundai,” said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research. “This allows them to be more aspirational, in a sense, without having to pay the $700 or more to buy into the current generation.”
What’s inside matters
Another reason old phones are valuable to companies is for what’s in them.
Apple has been working to curb the environmental impact of its massive global manufacturing operations, expanding recycling programs and pledging to go completely carbon neutral by 2030.
“The manufacturers have been emphasizing this focus more, they talk about the recycled materials that they use to produce their phones,” Rubin said.