If the omniscient Macklemore is to be believed, then skipping the high prices of the retail racks and going straight to the thrift store for solid deals on clothing is a practice worth extolling in song. That's because these stores are frequently lined in wares that are in exceptional condition; not even the most seasoned shopper is immune to an occasional bout of buyer's remorse, and when making a return isn't an option, perfectly fine and gently used clothes wind up on racks of thrift and consignment shops. This type of green business actually makes it possible to score unbelievable deals — and save some cash — on like-new clothing.
Being people who work with cold hard numbers, we wanted to know a bit more about the facts and figures behind thrift and consignment shopping, namely: how much can you save with secondhand clothing? We turned to Carolyn Schneider, author of "The Ultimate Consignment & Thrift Store Guide," a 400-page bible of the pursuit, for some light on the matter.
Thrift Store Markdowns: 50% to 80% Off
Schneider says that the average discount a shopper can find on apparel in thrift stores is upwards of 50% off. And it doesn't even have to stop at the 80% mark. "Many stores offer additional discounts," she says. "If an item does not sell in 30 days, it's marked down an additional 20%, and if it does not sell in 60 days it is marked down another 20%." So if you're on the fence about a blouse or jeans, it might be good to revisit the shop in a week or so to see if the price has dipped. That said, there's a risk: Items in thrift stores and consignment shops are almost always one-of-a-kind, and leaving something on the rack today means it could be gone tomorrow. If fit, style, and price all intersect in an ideal sweet spot, you'll want to purchase the item then and there.
But if those "back in style" acid wash jeans feel like an impulse buy, Schneider says to hold out, especially if the price feels a bit high despite the discount. A $400 leather jacket at 50% off will still cost $200, and that's a high price tag. "Make sure you've done your research to see what the going rates are," and price-check your purchases, says Vanessa Rae, a lifestyle expert; there might be similar styles selling new for less money.
Thrift Shops Saved Americans $4 Billion on Clothes Last Year
With such high potential discounts, Americans are saving a pretty penny by clothing themselves via the thrift store route. As of June 2013, the total annual revenue for US thrift stores was $13 billion; that includes consumer electronics, home appliances, books, and clothes ... lots of clothes. Apparel makes up a third of the overall sales, or about $4 billion annually. And if we assume at least a 50% savings on all thrift store apparel, then the original sticker price of new clothes retailed for $8 billion — saving shoppers $4 billion on their purchases.
3 Out of 20 Americans Shop at Thrift and Consignment Stores
This estimate is a combination of two statistics from America's Research Group; first, about 16% to 18% of Americans shop at thrift stores every year, while 12% to 15% shop at consignment shops. If these percentages seem low, consider that 11.4% of Americans shop in factory outlet malls; 19.6% in apparel stores; and 21.3% in major department stores yearly, putting the thrift category right in the thick of things. And no matter what you might assume, those shoppers come from all levels of income, according to the Association of Resale Professionals: "There is no typical resale shopper, just as there is no typical resale shop."
Thrifting Is on the Rise, and a New Store May Be Opening Near You
Although three out of 20 Americans may seem like a low number for those who visit secondhand stores, there's evidence that suggests that thrifting in general is on the rise. Based on stats from the Association of Resale Professionals, the number of new thrift and consignment stores has grown over the past two years by about 25,000 stores! (If Macklemore's homage to thrifting came out earlier, we'd suspect that it had a part in encouraging the spike.) Interestingly, the non-profit sector has seen the most growth with stores like the Brown Elephant, Goodwill, and Salvation Army.
Buy Secondhand, Help Save the Planet
Thrift stores and consignment shops are obviously savvy options for anyone that feels strongly about lessening their impact on the environment, since these stores are able to combat the immense carbon footprint the clothing industry has on the environment; every article of clothing resold cuts down on the environmental cost of apparel production. Schneider says: "When you buy second hand, less items travel thousands of miles [and] use up energy and pollute the planet. And wearing gently-worn clothing means keeping those items out of landfills." Indeed, recycling-conscious consumers help drive the popularity of thrift and consignment. That said, if you're a do-gooder on the donating side of the thrift equation, we recommend you give to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or other notable non-profits.
Know Your Resale Shops: The Difference Between Thrift and Consignment
While most resale stores appear to be the same to shoppers, definite distinctions exist. According to the Association of Resale Professionals a resale shop is a store that buys its merchandise outright from individual owners. A consignment shop, which is a subset of resale, pays the owner a percentage when and if the items are sold, usually 40% to 60% of the selling price. And a thrift shop is run by a non-profit to fund a charitable cause.
Too loose to categorize for retail purposes (but a close cousin to a resale endeavor) is the yard or garage sale. Here discounts run extra deep on clothes, though shoppers also run a higher risk of buying damaged or stained goods, and not finding out until it's too late. By contrast, consignment shops (especially in high-rent neighborhoods) stake their resale reputation on closely inspecting garments for rips, tears, and the like, making the resale experience as close to new as you can get.
There's another category worth mentioning, as it can yield cashless bargains and eco-friendly results: the clothing swap. Planning your own event with fashion-conscious friends and acquaintances offers a twofer where you can clean out your closet and update your wardrobe in one outing; leftover clothes get bagged up and donated to thrifts.
The Downside to Buying Secondhand Clothes
As Rae sums up, the common roadblocks involve fit, style, and wardrobe basics. First, the resale mentality best fits those who, well, don't obsess over fit. There might not be much difference for a guy shopping for a Large sweater versus XL, but a cute blouse will likely come in one and only one size, and it might be a tad tight or loose. "Finding pieces that fit usually requires a sense of adventure and a lot of patience," she says. Then there's style: That one Gucci handbag you spot might have a shockingly low sticker price, but come in a color you don't like. And finally, thrift shoppers will have much better luck finding layers and add-ons as opposed to solid wardrobe basics, though getting to know your local consignment owner can aid in this endeavor. "When the owners and shop employees can get to know you and your taste, they can look out for and let you know about items they think you'd like," Rae says.
We'd love to report stats on the biggest thrift score ever, and many shoppers have stories about landing brand new, $200+ garments for about a tenth the cost. But alas, some numbers are not so much hard to confirm as open ended. There's something fun and cathartic about combing the racks like a modern-day treasure hunter and always finding a deal.
Readers, do any of you prefer buying your clothing at a thrift shop? What's the best deal that you've scored secondhand? Recount your triumphant story in the comments below!