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How the Sharing Economy Can Serve Professional Consumers

Raz Godelnik
| Monday January 28th, 2013 | 0 Comments

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prosumersLet’s say you’ve played the guitar for couple of years, and you’re really good at it. You’re probably not the next Hendrix, but you enjoy playing with your friends or jamming in your living room once in a while. Lately, you started wondering if the time hasn’t come to get yourself a more professional guitar, maybe even the Gibson Les Paul Standard Plus you have been secretly fantasizing about for some time. But you keep wondering – is it really worth paying $3,000 for what is basically just a hobby?

Here’s another scenario – you have been taking private golf lessons for about a year or so, and both you and your instructor feel that it’s time for you to get new clubs. You’re getting good at golf (still, nothing for Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy to worry about) and want to have a set of really good clubs to keep improving your game. You have your eye on Mizuno golf clubs, but you’re not sure if you’re ready to spend $700 on clubs, even if they’re offering “super game improvement and explosive distance that all cavemen crave!”

These are just examples of the struggles some consumers experience, mostly with regards to a hobby that they are ready to take to the next level. This group is also known as professional consumers or prosumers (not to be confused with Alvin Toffler’s prosumers, which refers to proactive consumers or the “progressive blurring of the line that separates producer from consumer”). In other words, these are amateurs that have requirements of professionals.

The conflicts this group has derive from the fact that in most cases, getting whatever their object of desire is involves a purchase with a questionable value (i.e. is it really worth it?). The question we’d like to explore is whether the sharing economy can provide prosumers with a better and more sustainable way to enjoy the guitar or golf clubs they want so much.

The risk in buying fancy golf clubs or an expensive guitar is that it will end up just like the home power drill, which as Alex Steffen explains, is used in average somewhere between 6 and 20 minutes in its entire lifetime, and the rest of the time, “it sits quietly stored away, gathering dust.” The waste, both ecological and financial, might be even greater when we look at the items prosumers are interested in, which probably have a larger ecological footprint and a higher price tag than a power drill.

When it comes to a power drill, the sharing economy has no problem providing alternatives that are cheaper and more sustainable than purchasing one – from neighborhood tool-lending websites to stores that would hand it to you for a reasonable price. The problem is that what prosumers have in mind is nothing like a home power drill.

First, it’s probably not a generic item that is just needed to drill a hole and it doesn’t really matter what brand or type it is, but a piece of equipment that needs to meet higher expectations. Second, prosumers would probably use the requested item more than 20 minutes in its lifetime so pricing is more of an issue as it needs to be attractive enough even when the use is occasional rather than rare. Last, but not least, this is a hobby we’re dealing with, not a chore, so the whole process of getting and bringing back the item should be easy and user-friendly as to not to take the fun out of whatever the prosumer wants to do.

Can the sharing economy deal with this list of requirements? I believe it is. Luckily we already have a few examples that provide us with an idea how it can be done. Take, for example, Sweat Shop, a Parisian “café couture” equipped with 10 Singer sewing machines that can be rented by the hour (EUR 6 per hour) and one central communal table. In addition to state of the art sewing machines, Sweat Shop offers sewing enthusiasts courses in sewing as well as “a serene atmosphere where work and relaxation go hand-in-hand.” Another example is Bill’s Music in Baltimore, which offers a rent-to-own electric guitar program in prices ranging from $10 to $49 per month.

Some businesses still don’t offer options to all prosumers, but show a potential to do so – take for example City Cookhouse in NY, which features a full-size kitchen, coupled with an intimate dining and instructional area. The place offers chefs, bakers and culinary students a fully equipped kitchen with the space and equipment necessary for recipe development, trending and innovation. Wouldn’t it be great if these services could also be offered to experienced, amateur bakers that want to try new recipes?

If you ask yourself why businesses should bother with the prosumers in the first place, the answer is that while prosumers will probably stay a small niche, it is also a profitable one given the type of items they want to have.

Companies that will look into sharing options for prosumers will be able to identify opportunities to generate more business – from a local cigar shop offering cigar lovers personal humidor services to a scuba diving gear supplier offering divers a subscription plan or rent-to-own options. The demand is already there, now they just need to figure out how to meet it.

[Image credit: rastariza, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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