Can digital resale clothing platforms provide a stable income for young people in the UK?

14 December 2021

In 2020, American Bella McFadden (@igirl) was the first seller to earn 7-figures ($1.26 million) using the digital fashion marketplace Depop.

Her success is certainly not an isolated story, but rather spearheads the thousands of Gen Z users who are generating vast streams of income from their bedrooms. Depop’s acquisition by Etsy – a rival online marketplace – valued at £1.1bn exemplifies the rapid growth in value in this sector. A distinctive feature of Depop is its focus on a young user base, boasting 30 million registered users in 150 countries.

Research into platform work has pointed to challenges associated with this form of working, with relatively low average income and unpredictable hours. Gen Z online marketplaces emphasise their environmentally sustainable and inclusive practices. Does this translate into any material differences in the nature of work, and if so, what factors enable this?

The nature of work on Depop: income and boundaries

Some of the top sellers we interviewed in our study of Depop quoted annually earning six-figure incomes. In total we interviewed 18 young people, 1 parent, and Chidi Onwudike, Depop’s Chief of Staff. One, aged 23, earned £26,000 per month, capitalising on her international connections to source and resell high-end pieces. Another, aged 24, has a monthly revenue of £12,000 from reselling streetwear shoes – photos of which are taken against his kitchen cupboard.

However, many sellers found generating a sustainable income challenging. Volume and frequency of sales was uncertain; work schedules of 30-40 hours per week on the platform were often undertaken alongside studying or other jobs. More affluent sellers tend to do better because they are not combining their Depop income with other work; they had reliable internet connections at home; sufficient space to store their stock, and better quality devices to take engaging photos of items.

However, for some sellers it was difficult to maintain a boundary between working on the platform and other aspects of their lives; selling became addictive:

“I’m literally on it all of the time non-stop, from the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep. Even when I wake up at 2 in the morning I’m still there replying to messages. I feel like I can never properly be asleep as I could be missing out on a sale.”  (UK Top Seller, aged 23)

Maintaining boundaries between online work and personal lives was a commonly cited challenge amongst those interviewed. The vast majority of sellers store stock at home, often in their bedrooms; family members help with packaging and postage, and selling from a personal device blurs with their social networks. In turn, this intensifies these various levels of communication, as well as the risk of burnout for sellers.

Despite these challenges, all of those interviewed enjoyed the work. A majority saw this as their full-time career trajectory, sometimes gaining personalised support from the platform to grow and develop their shop.

Supporting and developing sellers

Depop provides a wealth of support to all users: advertisements on their Explore Page or on featured categories; support via email; the automatic creation of spreadsheets with sales information, and a safety mechanism to mitigate sexual harassment and fraudulent transactions.

More ‘bespoke’ support offered to a selective group of ‘Top Sellers’, and those who sell high volumes, frequently included greater exposure, higher ranking in keyword searches, access to mentoring through Slack, and 1-2-1 contact with Depop staff. Interviewees appreciated this support, and reciprocated by promoting the Depop brand:

“They put me on their Instagram! I’ve done other social media for them. They’re fantastic and that’s why I’m so grateful, and I genuinely champion Depop because I’ve never had a company invest so much time in me.” (UK Top Seller, aged 23)

“I had a message from Depop, and this was quite early on before I became a Top Seller. They wanted me to go in and meet them […] They told me all the things I could do to push my account more and how I can make it, step it up. That’s when they told me: ‘You could do it full-time’ […] For us that’s been highly motivational.” (UK Top Seller, aged 23)

At the same time, there were limits to Depop’s relationship-building. The platform deliberately maintains an arms-length relationship with sellers on taxation to avoid liability:

“We’re not legally allowed to provide advice on tax. We’re not an accountant or tax specialist so we can’t provide advice, but the sellers team can point people in the right direction for resources.” (Chidi Onwudike, Chief of Staff, Depop)

This may have a disproportionate impact on sellers without the social or economic resources to secure the tax advice they need: sellers who can outsource taxation to family, friends and networks are more likely to prosper. External groups and forums on Reddit and Facebook help fill in some of the gaps, but Depop could ensure that there is taxation guidance and business support for young and often inexperienced digital entrepreneurs.

Skills and employability

The experience of selling on the platform can help to build a wealth of transferable, employable skills. Examples include product presentation, social media engagement and content creation, creativity, understanding market dynamics, problem-solving, procurement, scaling up businesses, and customer service.

“I organised an event for Depop in Hackney […] they gave me a budget and were like: ‘run a party event where different sellers and buyers can come and meet’ […] They try to do a lot for the community. But I think their community is growing so quickly that it’s hard to cater to everyone.” (UK Top Seller, aged 23)

Overall, the research findings show that these second-hand retail platforms can, in some circumstances, create valuable income streams for young people depending on their levels of engagement, access to reliable internet, space to store stock, and secure procurement strategies. The platform provides and supports opportunities to develop employability skills.

This might lead to the conclusion that Depop’s community-driven platform – coupled with encouraging conscientious consumerism – is emblematic of a new and valuable type of platform work.

However, whilst high income levels on the site are possible, there do remain challenges of income sustainability, and maintaining healthy work-life boundaries. The research also reveals how the experience of work is varied, with sellers experiencing differential access to resources and support. This suggests that whilst in some respects Depop’s platform is distinctive and may suit preferences for some young people, in other respects the experience of work is similar to other platforms.

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