Secondhand Clothes Get Brand-New Reputation

Low prices, good quality and large selections are driving up secondhand sales.

ByJayne O'Donnell and Elaine Hughes, USA TODAY

Aug. 19, 2007 — -- What!? Buy someone else's clothes?

It's a reaction many people have until they see the typically low prices, good quality and large selection at many of the more than 25,000 resale, consignment and thrift shops in the USA. And with back-to-school season in full swing during trying economic times, the resale industry is geared up for better-than-usual sales.

"When people perceive things are getting a little tighter, we do see the benefits in our retail stores," says Taylor Bond, CEO of Children's Orchard, a chain that specializes in "gently used" kids' clothing, toys and products. Secondhand clothes have "become more acceptable," he says.

The National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops (NARTS) estimates sales in the secondhand industry have risen about 5% each year for the last decade. America's Research Group says up to 15% of people shop at resale or consignment shops at least once a year; 21% visit a department store at least that often.

Thrift stores, which are operated by non-profits such as Goodwill, have been around for decades, but more-upscale resale and consignment shops didn't really take off until the 1980s. Resale shops buy good-condition used clothing outright from consumers, while consignment stores will sell them but don't give the donors their cut — usually half of what the clothes sell for — until after the sale.

Many shoppers steer toward resale and consignment shops for children's clothing, designer or vintage apparel and even wedding dresses, while others look for more mainstream brands such as Banana Republic and Ann Taylor at a fraction of their retail price. In an informal survey, most USA TODAY shopper panel members who have children said they have shopped for their kids at secondhand stores, and many said they'd be doing so this year.

Christina Griffey of San Mateo, Calif., always considered resale/consignment shops to be like thrift stores. But after a friend, who is "as finicky as I am about wearing other people's clothes," told her she shopped at Palm Beach vintage shops, Griffey decided to give secondhand a chance. She and her 17-year-old daughter went shopping for prom dresses at upscale San Francisco stores and found great buys.

"We will certainly be looking, come back-to-school time, for clothes for my daughter," Griffey says of resale shops. "She had, in the past, looked down her nose at those types of places, but now we have both come to realize that they are not 'those kinds of places' any longer."

Children's secondhand stores "are definitely busier before the school year starts," says Adele Meyer, executive director of NARTS. "Clothes are so expensive, and this is a good way to find good clothing at a good price. Kids grow quickly, and many times, they outgrow clothes before they have a chance to wear them."

Bond acknowledges that finding kids' casual clothing that is both used and presentable isn't easy: "The toughest things to get in resale are boys' jeans." To help compensate, Bond says, Children's Orchard stores have "playwear" sections that have clothes that "might not come up to our highest standards."

Rhea Lubich of Prescott, Wis., says her children have friends who find great buys at secondhand stores, but it's definitely not for them. "Once we did go into a consignment store, and the girls reversed immediately out the door. The store had such a foul odor."

Valerie McKenzie, who owns Texas-based consignment chain Restyle, says she and other store owners have worked hard to overcome that image. McKenzie says her stores smell so good and are so organized that people walk in and ask if the clothing is really used.

There's usually no question the clothing is used in resale shops that specialize in vintage clothing, but that doesn't mean the standards are any lower. Vintage items, which include clothing from the turn of the century to the 1970s, are popular these days, especially platform shoes, handbags, chunky jewelry and anything designed by Emilio Pucci, says Uesa Robinson, a former Capitol Hill shop owner who will start selling vintage and secondhand designer clothes next month at The clothes need to be inspected carefully and treated delicately, but a really fun find can be "nirvana," she says.

Even used wedding dresses are attracting a following. White Chicago, which sells new and used wedding dresses, does a brisk business.

"Bridal stores often carry only five or six designers, but bridal consignment shops have dresses from a lot of designers and many that are discontinued or from previous seasons," says White Chicago owner Ursula Guyer.

When it comes to selling to secondhand shops, consumers report varying experiences, with many saying the shops were so selective — and stingy — that it made more sense to donate to a charitable group.

Bridget Menke of Jacksonville says a local resale shop offered her only $1 on a shirt she got from Baby Gap for $10 and her child wore only once. When the store told Menke it'd be selling the shirt for $6.50, she decided to give it to a friend. After a resale store near Lincoln, Neb., balked at Susan Bejot's basket of clothing from Urban Outfitters because its wasn't "more neatly prepared," she decided resale wasn't for her.

"It simply is not worth the hassle to get so little money for so few items and still have a lot to donate anyway," says Bejot.

McKenzie acknowledges being picky. She requires that clothes be styles that are from the past two to three years, be clean and free of holes or spots.

Robinson appreciates the high standards: She buys nearly all her clothes at consignment shops or estate sales. "I love the high of not knowing what you're going to find."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events