The Online Resale Economy Is Booming. But What About IRL Stores?

By guest author Eliza Brooke

Executives at Buffalo Exchange and Beacon’s Closet weigh in on the changing face of secondhand shopping

You should always be sceptical when a company releases data about its own industry, but ThredUp’s annual report on the state of the secondhand clothing world is too interesting to pass up. Last year, ThredUp predicted that the resale market would grow to USD 33 billion by 2021. In numbers released Tuesday, it says that by 2022, the market will hit USD 41 billion.

It is compelling stuff. Over the past few years, online resale start-ups have been an increasingly bright presence in a retail environment that, generally speaking, is a bit of a hellscape. They have raised millions of dollars in venture capital financing (sometimes hundreds of millions), and last year Depop, ThredUp, and The RealReal all opened their first brick-and-mortar stores. Depop, a London-based app favoured by hip creative types, told Racked it hit USD 230 million in revenue during 2017.

A shopper at Buffalo Exchange

Meanwhile, Buffalo Exchange, a secondhand store chain that’s been in business since 1974 and has 49 locations around the United States, is privately held and has raised no such money from investors. The company’s revenue reached USD 87 million in 2017, says vice president Rebecca Block. She expects to see sales total more than USD 90 million this year.

No e-commerce presence means Buffalo Exchange’s growth is limited to the gains it makes in the real world, and the executive team is selective about where it puts down roots.

“We’re opening a store in Richmond, Virginia, probably by early summer, and we’re always looking at markets where we might do well,” Block says. “It definitely has to be a more alternative, interesting place. I don’t want to say ‘hipster’ because that’s overused and done, but definitely a more interesting and involved community.”

If secondhand shopping is growing 24 times faster than the rest of apparel retail, as ThredUp says it is, how much of that are longstanding brick-and-mortar stores seeing?

For a number of secondhand and vintage stores with little to no online business, sales have indeed been growing steadily in recent years. Delila Hailechristos, the owner of ReLove in San Francisco, says she’s experienced 20 percent growth year over year since opening up shop in 2014. Carrie Peterson, who founded Beacon’s Closet in 1997 and now counts four other women as business partners, reports that sales rose 157 percent between 2007 and 2017.

Stacy Iannacone, the owner of Ritual Vintage, a tiny, treasure-packed boutique in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood, says: “Ritual has shown consistent growth every year since I opened. Suffice it to say, no small boutique business in Lower Manhattan would be open 12 years if that were not the case.”

Though their businesses have not attained the kind of massive scale enabled by Silicon Valley engineers, these retailers do agree that the culture around secondhand clothing has undergone a sea change, bringing in a new, larger customer base than ever before. Many people started buying used clothing for the first time during the recession in 2008, but even as the economy bounced back, retailers saw shoppers gravitate toward secondhand out of a sense of environmentalism, and as a way to distinguish themselves in a world of Madewell and Zara.

“The most significant impact I can see on secondhand, culturally, is the rise of the cult of the individual,” says Iannacone. “We are further from the years of every woman clamoring to own the same status bag and have reached an era where personal branding and individuality is of great importance. Ten years ago, clients might come in shopping for a specific event. In the age of Instagram, life is an event, to be constantly documented and shared.”

It helps that clothing styles popular in the ’70s and ’90s are back with a vengeance right now. You can go buy a scalloped button-front miniskirt from Reformation, or you can buy an original ’70s version from Ritual Vintage and bask in the glow of your individuality and environmentalism. That’s a real-life example. I did that.

Hailechristos, who was the district manager for a chain of resale stores before she opened ReLove, says she’s seeing more young people and men coming into her shop today. In her view, they’re not just coming for singular clothing styles; they’re seeking an experience.

“These spaces feel really intimate because you’re browsing things that have been worn before. It is not corporate; it’s not homogenous. It’s a lot more, for lack of a better word, community-based,” she says. “Somebody has chosen something and put it on a rack for you to discover. That’s a very different experience than something that’s merchandised to make you feel like you need it.”

For many people, it is easiest to buy life’s necessities online (a.k.a. on Amazon), so retail executives have spent the past few years talking about how to transform real-life shopping into an “experience.” (By installing in-store hair salons and coffee shops, for example.) Secondhand stores are inherently an experience, simply because you do not know what you’re going to get before you head in.

Longstanding secondhand stores are making some small motions to emulate their competitors in the online space. Beacon’s Closet, which sells just 2 percent of its merchandise online, is soft-launching a mail-in program for sellers in a few weeks.

But overall, those interviewed seemed placid about online players like The RealReal and Depop joining their ranks. Secondhand stores can come to occupy distinct aesthetic niches, shaped by the tastes of local sellers and the staff’s curation. As awareness of secondhand shopping grows, more people are likely to start participating in the cycle of buying and selling.

“If online stores like The RealReal have done one thing, it’s take out really high-end items that people might want to bring in,” says Hailechristos. “I would say our challenge is that now you have to build those relationships and build that trust so people bring you those items.”

Community is the very thing that gives secondhand stores an edge on digital players, and it is not just a perk. It is essential.