That beaten up Walkman buried in your basement might be someone’s hot new accessory. The retro tech market is alive and kicking.
In May, Apple refreshed the iPod touch for the first time in four years. Vinyl record sales clocked in at 400 million on average over the past four years, according to data from data tracker Statista. DVD player sales are trending downward, but they still consistently hit four million units sold every holiday quarter, even as recently as 2018.
Other gadgets that have stayed the course: camcorders, radios, clock radios, desk phones, and DVRs. Millions of these are still in use in US households in 2017, according to Statista.
What drives people to continue purchasing vinyl records, instant film cameras, and iPods, long after new products have made those objects irrelevant?
Older gadgets have a lot of staying power because they allow people to unplug from the constant ping of smartphones and tablets.
“There’s a growing segment of people that would like to be disconnected but still have access to the things they want,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president of mobile devices at International Data Corporation, “So it fills a void in the market.”
Many vintage products attract a strong cult following. For example, IPod lovers anticipate Apple’s product refreshes on social media and online forums.
Apple (AAPL) also appears to be targeting kids in its iPod marketing, according to Paul Gagnon, executive director of research and analysis at IHS Markit.
“The brands are starting to build a young consumer base and then eventually transition them as they grow older to more expensive products the company might also make,” he noted.
Instant cameras with film are also popular among teens. Fujifilm, which makes Polaroid-like cameras with film that instantly develops, said its sales are holding steady. In its fiscal year ending in March, it sold over 10 million cameras and smartphone printers worldwide. Fujifilm says it’s been able to cross generational boundaries by attracting photographers in the digital age.
Nostalgia plays a big part in old tech’s popularity, too. It can give people that comforting feeling of their childhoods or remind them of a specific time and place.
“The pace of companies selling new devices and forcing old technology into obsolescence means that certain devices are associated with certain periods in history,” said Michael Connor, artistic director of Rhizome, a digital art organization.
Vintage gadgets can help people enjoy technology while allowing people to feel connected to the real world. Smartphones often have the opposite effect.
That’s why people still buy alarm clocks and calculators, even though a smartphone has all those functions.
“The smartphone is a bit of a Swiss Army knife. But it’s not necessarily specialized,” said Gagnon.
Some people will find it easy to use the phone to replace all those older gadgets, he said. But “a lot of people out there either don’t own a smartphone, or for them using those functions is not easy. For those people, legacy products will always exist.”
And some people like the artistry of older gadgets. People seek out physical items, but they want “a filtered, idealized version” of those things, said Amanda Brennan, Tumblr’s “meme librarian” and head of content insights and social.
“Polaroids often look blurry, vinyl sound quality is nowhere near an MP3 or stream — but it makes them feel more vibrant, more real-life,” she said.
Older products carry with them unique experiences. Connor, the artistic director, describes how a pixel looks different on an old cathode-ray-tube monitor when compared with a modern-day display. On a CRT monitor, a pixel has a “soft low res quality” that can be artistically appealing, said Connor.