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Cash for This, Cash for That: You Name It, They Want It
Trade-Ins Catch On In a Down Economy

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009 11:26 AM

Toiling away in the face of recession -- no act of Congress to help him -- Jeffrey Aronson and company single-handedly pumped $100 million into the economy.

They had advertising (MC Hammer during the Superbowl), an office (the size of a football field) and an idea (give us your old jewelry, we'll give you cash). They called it Cash4Gold.

The name had a ring to it, and it caught on -- what does "Cash for Clunkers" sound like to you? -- so last week, Aronson wrote to Congress, with a cc to President Obama, offering to help take the federal government's auto trade-in program to the next level.

"Dear Leaders," Aronson and co-founder Howard Mofshin wrote. "We have been impressed by the fact that, within just one week of inception, you successfully doled out $1,000,000,000.00 in consumer-confidence-building liquidity.

"In parallel fashion, though at an admittedly smaller scale and on the basis of our own entrepreneurship and self-financing . . . Cash4Gold has paid out more than $100,000,000.00 since our launch in 2007," they wrote.

Cash, it seems, is king today, crowned by tight credit and economic pain. If "Cash for Clunkers" sent Americans racing to trade in their old cars with the help of a government rebate of up to $4,500, and Cash4Gold has them selling off their jewelry, "Cash for fill-in-the-blank" is, well, cashing in.

On Friday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said it has 110 trademark requests on file for some variation of the phrase, including "Ca$h for Tra$h," "Cash for Gas" and "Cash for Crude."

The retail chain Penn Camera has been running its own "Cash for Clunkers" ad in area newspapers, including The Washington Post, for two weekends in a row.

"We're trying to draw people in," said Craig Wineman, manager of a Penn Camera store in Fairfax. "It catches people's eyes." By midday on Friday, he had received six calls because of the ad; three callers brought in old equipment to trade in.

Like other cultural moments, this one has its joke: I tried to trade in my clunker but they said my husband didn't qualify. (Or wife, as the case may be.)

But seriously, as the economy has worsened, Aronson said Friday, people have begun looking for cash, and it's not just the paycheck-to-paycheck Americans who already felt comfortable in pawn shops.

When Aronson started Cash4Gold, people sent in lots of mismatched items. Now, he said, Rolex watches, Cartier and other high-end pieces are starting to come in. "You've got guys who were wearing a Rolex last week and are sending it in this week so they can pay their mortgage," he said. "It has been a really ugly time out there. Every demographic in America has been hit."

Aronson, 36, said his company has bought more than $100 million in jewelry. His one-story office, in Pompano Beach, Fla., just north of Fort Lauderdale, holds 225 workers who sort the gold, test it and melt it down. Then they sell it to refineries, jewelry makers and private mints that make commemorative coins.

On the processing floor, workers in medical-looking scrubs take pictures, weigh and process mismatched earrings, tangled bracelets and necklaces, plus the occasional odd pieces such as a one-pound, solid-gold pig charm and even teeth with gold fillings. The company takes in 15,000 to 20,000 packages a week.

Perhaps, Aronson said Friday, the government could use his marketing savvy. (He, after all, is making money. The government is giving it away.)

"They've done an admirable job," he said of the federal clunker program, which as of Wednesday had taken in about 184,000 gas guzzlers at a cost of $775.2 million. "We could lend another level of expertise."

"We would be honored to dispatch a delegation of our core executive team -- including global brand strategists, marketers, alternative media experts, industrial metal recycling innovators, and communications specialists -- to Washington," Aronson and Mofshin wrote in the letter.

As of Sunday, neither the president nor Congress had replied.

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