The sharing economy is currently enjoying a lot of hype, especially as consumers look for alternatives to traditional services and businesses. But as with many buzzwords and emerging economic disruptors, there may be a gap with reality. Depending on what the sharing economy includes, it may be a majority activity—or a niche one.
Uber and Airbnb are two placeholders for what people think of when they think of the sharing economy, but actually, the market is quite varied and deep—and the most-hyped players may not be the most significant, as a May 2016 report from Pew Research Center suggests.
For example, 50% of US adults surveyed say they’ve purchased used or secondhand goods online, on sites like Etsy, Pinterest or even Ebay. These are sites that let people connect to purchase the products they want without having to shop at a traditional retailer—but they’re probably not what you first think of when the sharing economy comes up. Another good example is a company like StubHub, where individual ticket holders can resell their seats to another adult—28% of those surveyed said they used such services.
Meanwhile, just 15% of US adults surveyed said they have used the ride-hailing apps, a number that does not reflect the outsized conversation about ride-sharing. Even fewer had used a home-sharing service like Airbnb.
Pew is not the only researcher that bundles services like Uber with marketplaces like Ebay in estimates of the sharing or on-demand economy. eMarketer uses a more restrictive definition, however, which includes only community-based online services that coordinate peer-to-peer paid access to property, goods or services.
In the lodging sector of the sharing economy, eMarketer estimates that there were 10.3 million users of such services in 2015. Again, think Airbnb, the most popular of these services by far. For 2016, we project growth at a rate of 22%, up to 12.6 million users, a figure that will jump to 14.5 million by 2017.
These are notable figures, but like with ride-sharing apps, the services’ actual popularity is outstripped by market hype. For example, this year’s figure of 12.6 million users makes up only 5.0% of the US adult population. Even if we pare it down to adult internet users, that figure only inflates to 5.8%. Taking 2020’s projected 19.3 million users into account, we still only arrive at a total of 7.4% of the adult population, or 8.4% of adult internet users.
And that trend is borne out more generally, though the sharing economy overall will see more penetration in years to come. eMarketer estimates that there will be 27 million users of any type of sharing economy service in 2016, for 10.8% of the population and 12.5% of adult internet users. Next year, that user number will grow to 30.9 million, which translates to 12.2% of adults in the US, and 14.0% of adult internet users. These numbers aren’t far off Pew’s figures for users of ride-hailing apps or home-sharing services.
And for all the perceived enthusiasm surrounding the sharing economy, US internet users are conflicted on their basic feelings about it. While over half of those surveyed in May 2016 by AYTM Market Research at least somewhat agree with the idea that the sharing economy is good for consumers, that level of certainty drops slightly with respect to whether it’s good for the economy as a whole—and more significantly with respect to whether it’s good for businesses.