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A pawnbroker is an individual or business (pawnshop or pawn shop) that offers secured loans to people, with items of personal property used as collateral. The word pawn is derived from the Latin pignus, for pledge, and the items having been pawned to the broker are themselves called pledges or pawns, or simply the collateral.
If an item is pawned for a loan, within a certain contractual period of time the pawner may redeem it for the amount of the loan plus some agreed-upon amount for interest. The amount of time, and rate of interest, is governed by law or by the pawnbroker's policies. If the loan is not paid (or extended, if applicable) within the time period, the pawned item will be offered for sale by the pawnbroker. Unlike other lenders, the pawnbroker does not report the defaulted loan on the customer's credit report, since the pawnbroker has physical possession of the item and may recoup the loan value through outright sale of the item. The pawnbroker also sells items that have been sold outright to them by customers.
The pawning process begins when a customer brings an item into a pawn shop. Common items pawned (or, in some instances, sold outright) by customers include jewelry, electronics, collectibles, musical instruments, and tools. In some states in the U.S., pawnshops with firearms licenses sell pistols and rifles to customers who meet state and federal acquisition criteria. In other states and other countries, such as Canada, Ireland and the UK, pawnshops do not sell firearms. Gold, silver, and platinum are popular items—which are often purchased, even if in the form of broken jewelry of little value. Metal can still be sold in bulk to a bullion dealer or smelter for the value by weight of the component metals. Similarly, jewelry that contains genuine gemstones, even if broken or missing pieces, have value.
The pawnbroker assumes the risk that an item might be stolen. However, laws in many jurisdictions protect both the community and broker from unknowingly handling stolen goods (also known as fencing). These laws often require that the pawnbroker establish positive identification of the seller through photo identification (such as a driver's license or government-issued identity document), as well as a holding period placed on an item purchased by a pawnbroker (to allow time for local law enforcement authorities to track stolen items). In some jurisdictions, pawnshops must give a list of all newly pawned items and any associated serial number to police, so the police can determine if any the items have been reported stolen. Many police departments advise burglary or robbery victims to visit local pawnshops to see if they can locate stolen items. Some pawnshops set up their own screening criteria to avoid buying stolen property.
The pawnbroker assesses an item for its condition and marketability by testing the item (in the case of electronics or instruments) and examining it for flaws, scratches or other damage. Another aspect that affects marketability is the supply and demand for the item in the community or region. In some markets, the used goods market is so flooded with used stereos and car stereos, for example, that pawnshops will only accept the higher-quality brand names. Alternatively, a customer may offer to pawn an item that is difficult to sell, such as a surfboard in an inland region, or a pair of snowshoes in tropical or sub-tropical regions. The pawnshop owner either turns down hard-to-sell items, or offers a low price. While some items never get outdated, such as hammers and hand saws, electronics and computer items quickly become obsolete and unsalable. Pawnshop owners must learn about different makes and models of computers, software, and other electronic equipment, so they can value objects accurately.
To assess value of different items, pawnbrokers use guidebooks ("blue books"), catalogs, Internet search engines, and their own experience. Some pawnbrokers have trained in identification of gems, or employ a specialist to assess jewelry. One of the risks of accepting secondhand goods is that the item may be counterfeit. If the item is counterfeit, such as a fake Rolex watch, it may have only a fraction of the value of the genuine item. Once the pawnbroker determines the item is genuine and not likely stolen, and that it is marketable, the pawnbroker offers the customer an amount for it. The customer can either sell the item outright if (as in most cases) the pawnbroker is also a licensed secondhand dealer, or offer the item as collateral on a loan.
To determine the amount of the loan, the pawnshop owner needs to take into account several factors. One factor is the predicted resale value of the item. This is often thought of in terms of a range, with the low point being the wholesale value of the used good, in the case that the pawnshop is unable to sell it, and they decide to sell it to a wholesale merchant of used goods. The higher point in the range is the retail sale price in the pawnshop. For example, a five-year-old 42" Sony TV may have been bought by the customer for $1000. However, as a used item in a pawnshop, it will only fetch $250 and $300, because the customers will be wary that it might be a "lemon" that the seller is getting rid of because it has some hard-to-detect problem. Used electronics wholesalers will buy the TV for $100 to $150. The wholesaler pays a lower price than the retail value because they have the added cost of hiring electronics technicians who overhaul and repair the items so that they can be sold in used electronics stores.
The pawnshop owner takes into account their knowledge of supply and demand for the item in question to determine if they think that they will end up selling the TV for $100 to a wholesaler or $300 to a pawnshop customer. If the pawnshop owner believes that there are "too many used TVs around these days in town", they may fear that they will only get $100 for the TV if they have to unload it to a wholesaler. With that figure in mind as the expected revenue, the pawnshop owner has to factor in the overhead costs of the store (rent, heat, electricity, phone connection, yellow pages ad, website costs, staff costs, insurance, alarm system, confiscated items, etc.), and a profit for the business. As such, the customer who comes in with this TV that they paid $1000 for when it was new may be offered as little as $50 by the pawnshop owner, who is taking into account all of the risk and cost factors.
In determining the amount of the loan, the pawnshop owner also assesses the likelihood that the customer will pay the interest for several weeks or months and then return to repay the loan and reclaim the item. Since the key to the pawnshop business model is making interest off the loaned money, pawnshop owners want to accept items that the customer is likely to want to recover, after having paid interest for a period on the loan. If, in an extreme case, a pawnshop only accepted items that customers had no interest in ever reclaiming, it would not make any money from interest, and the store would in effect become a second hand dealer.
Determining if the customer is likely to return to reclaim an item is a subjective decision, and the pawnshop owner may take many factors into account. For example, if a young able-bodied man comes into the pawnshop to pawn an electric wheelchair (perhaps claiming it to be the possession of his late grandfather), the pawnshop owner may doubt that the item will be redeemed. On the other hand, if a middle aged man pawns a top quality set of golf clubs, the pawnshop owner may assess it as more credible that he will return for the items.
Some customers may attempt to persuade the pawnshop owner that the item in question is important to them ("that necklace belonged to my grandmother, so I will certainly return for it"). Other customers may return several times over a year and pawn the same valuable item as a way of borrowing money, and they return each month to pay the interest and recover the item.
The saleability of the item and the amount that the customer wants for it are also factored into the pawnbroker's assessment; if a customer offers a very salable item at a low price, the pawnbroker may accept it even if it is unlikely that the customer will return, because the pawnshop can turn around a quick profit on the item. However, if a customer offers an extremely low price the pawnbroker may turn down the offer, because this suggests that the item may either be counterfeit or stolen.
Pawnshops have to be careful to manage how many new items they accept as pawns: either too little inventory or too much is bad. A pawnshop might have too little inventory if, for example, it mostly buys jewels and gold that it resells or smelts—or perhaps the pawnshop owner quickly sells most items through specialty shops (e.g., musical instruments to music stores, stereos to used hi-fi audio stores, etc.). In this case, the pawnshop is less interesting to customers, because it is mostly empty.
On the other extreme, a pawnshop with a huge inventory has several disadvantages. If the store is crammed with used athletic gear, old stereos, and old tools, the store owner must spend time and money shelving and sorting items, displaying them on different stands or in glass cases, and monitoring customers to prevent shoplifting. If there are too many low-value, poor quality items, such as old toasters, scratched-up 20 year-old TVs, and worn-out sports gear piled into cardboard boxes, the store may begin to look more like a rummage sale or flea market. Small, high-value items such as iPod players or cell phones must be in locked glass display cases, which means the owner may need additional staff to unlock the cabinets for items customers want to examine. As a store fills with items, an owner must protect inventory theft by hiring staff to supervise the different areas or install security cameras and alarms. Too much unsold inventory means that the store has not been able to realize value from these items to provide cash to loan to borrowers.
The better option lies in the middle: a store with a moderate amount of good quality, brand-name items arranged neatly in the display windows attracts passersby, who are more likely to enter and shop. If items are attractively laid out in display cases and shelves, the pawnshop looks more professional and reputable. Once passersby start shopping in the store, they may be more inclined to pawn or sell their own items to the pawnshop. Some pawnshop owners prevent clutter look by storing overstocked items, or less attractive items such as snow tires, in a back room or basement. Some pawnshop companies operate a chain of stores in a state or province. This way, they can balance inventory between stores. For example, they can move some of a rural store's surfeit of fishing gear to an urban store.
Some stores also slim down inventory by selling items to specialty retailers. A pawnshop in a low-income neighborhood that pays a customer $300 for a power amplifier with a used value of $2000 may find the unit hard to sell alongside much less expensive merchandise. They may sell the amplifier to a used audio equipment store whose customers expect higher end equipment. Some pawnshops sell specialty items online, on eBay or other websites. A specialty item such as a high-end model railroad set may not sell in the store for its "blue book" value. On an online auction, it stands a good chance of bringing a good price.
While the main business activities of a pawnshop are lending money for interest based on valuable items that customers bring in, some pawnshops also undertake other business activities, such as selling brand-new retail items that are in demand in the neighborhood of the store. Depending on where a pawnshop is located, these other retail items may range from guitar and musical instruments to firearms. Some pawnbrokers also sell brand-new self-defense items such as pepper spray or stun guns. Many pawnshops will also trade used items, as long as the transaction turns a profit for pawn shop. In cases where the pawnshop buys items outright, the money is not a loan; it is a straight payment for the item. Some pawnshops may keep a few unusual, high value items on display to capture the interests of passersby, such as a vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle; the owner is not typically expecting to sell these items. Other activities carried out by pawnshops are financial services including fee-based check cashing, payday loans, vehicle title or house title loans, and currency exchange services.
In the west, pawnbroking existed in the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires. Most contemporary Western law on the subject is derived from the Roman jurisprudence. As the empire spread its culture, pawnbroking went with it. Likewise, in the East, the business model existed in China 3000 years ago no different than today, through the ages strictly regulated by Imperial or other authorities.
In spite of early Roman Catholic Church prohibitions against charging interest on loans, there is some evidence that the Franciscans were permitted to begin the practice as an aid to the poor. Pawnbrokerage arrived in England with William the Conqueror, but known by the Italian name, Lombard. In 1338, Edward III pawned his jewels to raise money for his war with France. King Henry V did much the same in 1415. The Lombards were not a popular class, and Henry VII harried them a good deal. In 1603 an Act against Brokers was passed and remained on the statute-book until 1872. It was aimed at the many counterfeit brokers in London. This type of broker was evidently regarded as a fence. Queen Isabella of Spain pawned her jewelry to finance Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the New World.
Crusaders, predominantly in France, brokered their land holdings to monasteries and diocese for funds to supply, outfit, and transport their armies to the Holy Land. Instead of outright repayment the Church reaped a certain amount of crop returns for a certain amount of seasons, which could additionally be re-exchanged in a type of equity.
A pawnbroker can also be a charity. In 1450, Barnaba Manassei, a Franciscan monk, began the Monte di Pietà movement in Perugia, Italy. It provided financial assistance in the form of no-interest loans secured with pawned items. Instead of interest, the Monte di Pietà urged borrowers to make donations to the Church. It spread through Italy, then to other parts of Europe. The first Monte de Piedad organization in Spain was founded in Madrid, and from there the idea was transferred to New Spain by Pedro Romero de Terreros, the Count of Santa Maria de Regla and Knight of Calatrava. The Nacional Monte de Piedad is a charitable institution and pawn shop whose main office is located just off the Zocalo, or main plaza of Mexico City. It was established between 1774 and 1777 by Pedro Romero de Terreros as part of a movement to provide interest-free or low-interest loans to the poor. It was recognized as a national charity in 1927 by the Mexican government. Today it is a fast-growing institution with over 152 branches all over Mexico and with plans to open a branch in every Mexican city.
The pawnbrokers' symbol is three spheres suspended from a bar. The three sphere symbol is attributed to the Medici family of Florence, Italy, owing to its symbolic meaning of Lombard. This refers to the Italian province of Lombardy, where pawn shop banking originated under the name of Lombard banking. The three golden spheres were originally a symbol medieval Lombard merchants hung in front of their houses, and not the arms of the Medici family. It has been conjectured that the golden spheres were originally three flat yellow effigies of byzants, or gold coins, laid heraldically upon a sable field, but that they were converted into spheres to better attract attention.
Most European towns called the pawn shop the "Lombard". The House of Lombard was a banking family in medieval London, England. According to legend, a Medici employed by Charlemagne slew a giant using three bags of rocks. The three-ball symbol became the family crest. Since the Medicis were so successful in the financial, banking, and moneylending industries, other families also adopted the symbol. Throughout the Middle Ages, coats of arms bore three balls, orbs, plates, discs, coins and more as symbols of monetary success. Pawnbrokers (and their detractors) joke that the three balls mean "Two to one, you won't get your stuff back".
In Hong Kong the practice follows the Chinese tradition, and the counter of the shop is typically higher than the average person for security. A customer can only hold up his hand to offer belongings and there is a wooden screen between the door and the counter for customers' privacy. The symbol of a pawn shop in Hong Kong is the animal bat holding a coin (Chinese: 蝠鼠吊金錢, Cantonese: fūk syú diu gām chín). The bat signifies fortune and the coin signifies benefits. In Japan, the usual symbol for a pawn shop is a circled number seven (7) because "shichi", the Japanese word for seven, sounds similar to the word for "pawn" (質).
Malaysia, a multi-race country, where Malaysian Chinese consists 25% of total population, initiated the pawnbroker business. Nowadays, the majority of pawnbrokers in Malaysia are managed by Malaysian Chinese. In Malay, pawn is called "pajak gadai". A valid and licensed pawnshop in Malaysia must always declare themselves as a "pajak gadai" or a pawn shop for their company registration. They must also fulfill the requirements of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government which states the pawn counter must not be higher than 4 feet, is bullet-proof, has stainless-steel counters/doors, strong rooms with automatic locks, safes, equipped with fully computerized system, CCTV, alarm, and pawnbroker insurance.
In the Philippines, the operation of pawnshops is managed by private businesses and is duly regulated by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. Pawn shops usually accept gold jewelry, appliances, gadgets, etc. Many pawn shops in the Philippines have adapted other services into their nationwide branches like Cebuana Lhuillier Pawnshop. Services like international and domestic remittance, insurance, bills payment, b2b money collection, e-loading for mobile phones, ticketing, and even banking are not unusual to see in a regular Filipino pawn shop.
In India, the Marwari Jain community pioneered the pawnbroking business, but today others are involved; the work is done by many agents called "saudagar". Instead of working from a shop, they go to needy people's homes and motivate them to become involved in the business. Pawn shops are often run as part of jewelry stores. Gold, silver, and diamonds are frequently accepted as collateral.
Pawnbroking is also a traditional trade in Thailand, where pawn shops are run both privately and by local governments.
In Sri Lanka, pawnbroking is a lucrative business engaged in by specialized pawnbrokers as well as commercial banks and other finance companies.
In Indonesia, there is a state-owned company called Pegadaian which provides a range of conventional and Sharia-compliant pawnbroking services across the archipelago. The company accepts high-value items such as gold, motor vehicles, and other expensive items as a collateral. In addition to pawnbroking activities, the company provides a range of other services, such as a safe deposit box and gold trading services.
Pawn Stars, an American reality television series (2009) appearing on the History Channel, chronicles the daily activities at the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, Nevada. A spinoff series, Cajun Pawn Stars, premiered in 2012 and focuses on the Silver Dollar Pawn and Jewelry Center in Alexandria, Louisiana.
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