Last month, a Minnesota company called Tech Discounts received an email from a man in California. He had been trying to purchase 100 Chromebooks to donate to a nonprofit, but because of supply chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he hadn’t been able to find a seller. He had initially hoped to buy the computers new, but when he learned about Tech Discounts, an electronics refurbisher based in St. Paul, on an online forum, he decided to give the company a try. Within about two weeks, Tech Discounts filled the order and shipped him 100 refurbished Chromebooks — used devices that have been repaired and restored to good working order.
Ordinarily, it would be unusual for Tech Discounts to receive such a big order from someone halfway across the country. The company, which sources electronics from its sister electronics recycling business Tech Dump, ships small orders all over the nation, while orders of 10 or more computers are typically local. But with most of the nation in a state of partial or complete lockdown since mid-March, these are far from ordinary times. As the new normal of teleworking, remote learning, and maintaining relationships via Zoom wears on, people are finding themselves in need of additional phones, tablets, laptops, and IT equipment but unable to afford brand-new devices or unable to find them because manufacturers are out of stock. Early data and anecdotal reports suggest many people are turning to the refurbished market for the first time, where high-quality used devices can be bought at a steep discount.