Secondhand stores reap benefits of recession

There have been many euphemistic labels applied to secondhand goods, including "gently used," "pre-owned" and "like new." But in the current economy, they have a new and candid label: "hot sellers."

As Americans look for ways to cut spending, they are scooping up bargain clothes, accessories, toys and furniture once owned by someone else.

"We're sorry about the economic situation, … but it is a good time for our industry," says Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops.

Three-fourths of resale stores said they had higher sales in September and October, compared with the same period last year, according to the trade group. The average sales increase was about 35%.

Pam Shecter of Staten Island in New York is helping to prop up those numbers. She once made a lucrative salary, but after she was laid off, her family had to cut back.

To cut spending, she shops at garage sales, thrift stores and on eBay for herself, her husband (a freelancer who does special-effects makeup) and their 2-year-old daughter.

Among her "pre-owned" finds: a kitchen play set for her daughter for $20 at a garage sale.

"It's weird to go from feeling like you're one of the wealthiest people in the country to going to secondhand stores," Shecter says. But given her family's financial situation, she has to be "resourceful and creative."

While economic troubles are spurring secondhand sales, trend researcher Irma Zandl says, "The appeal goes beyond bargain hunting."

Some buyers, she says, like the feeling of social responsibility that comes with buying "recycled" goods, while others pride themselves on ferreting out unique — and fashionable — "vintage" outfits by shopping secondhand.

Myrna Skoller, who owns the Designer Resale store on Manhattan's tony Upper East Side, says her shoppers "brag about it when they get (merchandise) at a good price," she says. "It's almost a status symbol to get something cheaper."

In a survey last summer, 70% of adults said buying used is more socially acceptable now than five or 10 years ago, according to the poll by Harris Interactive and eBay.

"I don't think there's as much of a stigma on buying clothing and accessories at a discount, especially now that the economy is doing what it's doing," says Milo Bernstein, co-owner of high-end New York City consignment shop chain Ina.

Where shoppers are scooping up secondhand goods:

• EBay. Shecter says she regularly browses the online auction site for bargain purchases: "I would say that anything I'm going to get, I pretty much check on eBay first." So do others, apparently: Nearly 4% of people surveyed by BIGresearch in September said they shop at eBay on a regular basis, up from 2.1% a year earlier.

• Flea markets. Vendors at Jamie's Flea Market in South Amherst, Ohio, are doing hot business, even in cold, wet, wintry weather. "I do believe it's due to (the fact that) times are tough," says general manager Lorna Balmert.

At Brooklyn Flea, an outdoor market in the Fort Greene area of New York City, sales also are up, says co-founder Eric Demby. He says that in these times, a customer's ability to haggle over price helps sales. "If people feel that they have some control over (the price), then it feels like more of a bargain."

The economy also has sellers willing to negotiate, says Brooklyn Flea antique vendors Karen and Albert Williams. "It's a buyers market," Albert says.

•Garage sales Garage sales have also become very popular. For instance, the city of San Antonio sold 54,028 yard-sale permits for its fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The year before, it sold 37,846.

• Consignment shops and thrift stores. Resale stores not only survive economic slowdowns, they "thrive," says Meyer. Not only do they have more shoppers, more people have things they want to sell or donate (in the case of non-profit, charity stores).

"Given the state of the economy, (consumers) are taking a second look around their homes and saying, 'Do I really need 10 pairs of shoes that all look the same?' " Meyer says.

Secondhand sales are expected to remain robust as folks look to economize on their holiday spending: More than a quarter of consumers say they'll "increase or maintain" the amount of holiday shopping they do on eBay and other online auction sites, according to a survey by Deloitte.

And Meyer expects December to be a great month for resale stores. At one time, "No one shopped resale and consignment stores for gifts," she says. "But that's not true anymore."