Buy now, don’t pay later: how UK families are turning to freebies

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There’s a bike in Woking, Christmas cards in Bristol and a sofabed and stepladder available in Camden, north London.

Can you really get something for nothing? Thousands of people have realised you can with the trend for trading in free stuff now a mainstay of social media.

As the cost of living crisis bites, Britons are using sites such as Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace, Freecycle, Freegle and Olio to find items others no longer want to help kit out their homes and gardens or dress themselves or their kids – and even to source Christmas presents.

Gumtree has recorded a 160% increase in page views of free items since May this year with user sessions on freebie pages rising by 15% year-on-year. The site found two-thirds of Britons picked up an item for free in the first six months of the year, with 29% of those doing so for the first time.

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Gumtree estimates there are £3.96bn worth of items in British households that we’d happily part with for nothing, making a market ripe for tapping into.

Freegle, a swapping site that has been in operation since 2009 and has nearly 3 million members, said activity on the site was up 70% in the year to the end of February compared with the same period pre-pandemic.

The number of people searching for free stuff on Facebook Marketplace has surged 75% year-on-year, with 30% more joining UK-based freebie, swap, or discount groups, while neighbourhood social network Nextdoor says 40% more free stuff is being given away than pre-pandemic.

Freecycle, which has more than 600 local groups across the UK and 5,000 worldwide, says activity has doubled. It recorded a 50% increase in new sign-ups in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and remains 20% above historic rates.

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Cat Fletcher at Freegle says sharing sites are an alternative to charity shops as it is possible to give away items that many won’t take – from slightly broken furniture to electrical goods and children’s clothes. Another attraction is that the goods go to someone local who will immediately benefit and they can pop round to pick the item up, saving on the difficulty of finding transport.

Fletcher also runs the Free Shop in Brighton, where dozens of people bring and take free items every week.

View image in fullscreenFreegle’s Cat Fletcher (green jumper) looks at donations from Catherine Fisher. Photograph: Andrew Hasson/The Guardian

Catherine Fisher, 46, who donated some children’s games and dimmer switches this week, said: “I’m really keen not to put things into the waste. It felt like these are things that had a lot more life in them although they are not useful to me.”

She has used Facebook Marketplace and the sharing app Olio to buy, sell and give away items before but says the Free Shop “takes a lot of things other places don’t want to take and finds a home for it”.

The speed of getting rid of items for free is part of its attraction. Driven by the fear of missing out and with no concerns about haggling over payment, listed items usually go in a day or two.

“Its like hot cakes,” says Hannah Rouch, the chief marketing officer of Gumtree where about 1m free items are listed every week.

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She says rising interest in freebies is part of a general shift in behaviour in the past year or so with more acceptance of secondhand goods and interest in sharing with the local community.

Interest in trading sites was partly driven by necessity during the pandemic, when supply chain problems and high street lockdowns led to difficulties in obtaining some items through the usual routes – whether that was a freezer, a hot tub or a caravan.

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View image in fullscreenCat Fletcher. Photograph: Andrew Hasson/The Guardian

Chris Alderman, 27, who lives in Surbiton, south-west London, said he had almost entirely furnished his flat for free using Facebook Marketplace and other sites. He was prompted to find an alternative to buying new as he was short of cash immediately after finalising his home purchase while deliveries of sofas and beds were being held up during the Covid crisis.

“Initially I thought I would get only a couple of things but it worked out so I think I’ve saved myself a couple of thousand pounds,” says Alderman who picked up a bed, desk and desk chair, dining chairs, coffee table and mirror. He also picked up a sofa for £25.

He says: “It’s surprising what people will give away for free just to get rid of it. I was selective … I made sure it was made of proper wood or good quality, made to be taken apart and put back again.”

Alderman typifies a general shift in openness to swapping, sharing and trading with neighbours since the pandemic while the rise of secondhand trading sites such as eBay, Depop and Vinted have made “preloved” items fashionable.

“There are fewer social barriers,” adds Fletcher. She says interest in trying to live more sustainably has also driven the trend. “Not buying something new and reusing in your local community has a huge impact on carbon emissions,” she says, because they then don’t need to be manufactured and transported, often from far overseas. “There are just endless piles of stuff that we don’t need to make or buy new,” she says

Inflation on energy and food bills has only accelerated the trend. “A lot of people are making a post [requesting an item] saying they can’t afford it because of the cost of living so we know that is the case,” says Jacqueline Durham at Freecycle.

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View image in fullscreenA woman uses the Olio mobile app. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

Gumtree has seen spikes in activity on its free section around certain announcements that have piled economic pressure on families such as the petrol price rise and interest rate rises.

Michelle, who runs the Facebook group “discount codes freebies and glitches” with almost 70,000 members, says she has been overwhelmed by the number of people joining up online. “We are getting a lot of requests from single parents, pensioners and people saying they work full-time but are struggling to manage.

“Some have made me cry. Members have been thanking us for helping them with Christmas presents this year. When times are hard we all need a little treat.”

But it is not all about economic necessity. Rouch says that when she has listed toys or children’s clothing on the free site herself it not only means she is rid of items she wants to clear out quickly, but there is the added feelgood factor. “Every time a family came to pick something up I felt great about it as I could see their delight,” she said.

She says the combination of that feeling, interest in sustainability and the possibility to save money will only increase interest in sharing free stuff.

“I think it will normalise and grow. Once people find the quality of the items they are much more likely to make it their starting point [for looking for something] next time.”

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