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Turning others’ coal into your diamonds: Consignment and resale shops

5 Dec

This week, I went to a job interview dressed in a drop-dead-goregous purple and black tweed blazer with satin lining — that I had bought at a cheaper price than if I had bought a T-shirt at a dollar store. How did I pull this off? I turned someone’s trash into my treasure by shopping at a consignment store.

The resale store market remains healthy, despite our economic conditions, and it continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments of retail, according to the Association of Resale Professionals. Resale is a multi-billion dollar industry. One estimate has the resale industry in the United States to have annual revenues of about $13 billion. In 2010, Goodwill Industries alone generated $2.69 billion in retail sales from more than 2,500 non-profit resale stores across the country. The reasons for the growth of resale shops are not just economic. They also include a growing interest in “going green”. Yes, some of these locations may be a bit messy, but that has become the exception and not the rule. Many resale shops are trendy boutiques with a stylish decor, plus have an online presence. I personally went to one two weeks ago that had a Facebook page, had store employees waiting on me hand-and-foot… You name it.

The stores may bring in big bucks, as a whole, but the savings — if you play your cards right — can be enormous. Be warned that not everything you yank off the walls of a consignment store are going to be a real bargain. So, here are some of this experienced resale shopper’s tips for resale shopping.

1. Hit up the ritzy neighborhoods first.

Rich people throw out things you and I would kill to have. Therefore, look for resale shops near their neighborhoods because they’re more likely to throw out chunky items. I did this when visiting North Carolina a few years ago. I got a leopard print coat for $15 and a charcoal gray trench coat — handy in these mountain winters — for $10.

2. Search for specialty stores that you may need.

Resale shops sometimes specialize in catering to certain markets, therefore carving out even more of a niche for themselves. I found one such store that I needed when I found one devoted to sizes 14 and up. I wear a 16, so finding clothes at other consignment shops is not impossible, but is still a bit tricky. Many resale stores only sell children’s clothing, which would be great for stressed-out parents who constantly have to buy clothes for their growing kids. For whatever special concerns you have, there’s generally a resale store that will cater to your needs.

3. Pay attention to those tag dates!

At the last few consignment shops I’ve visited, the clothes had a tag on them that had dates. The tags generally had the date the item arrived — and different prices marked by different dates. Sometimes, the longer items have been in the store, the more the price goes down. The aforementioned blazer was originally priced at $17, still a nice bargain considering a decent blazer could cost $50 or more. However, the blazer had been hanging around the store for a while, and I noticed that, by the time I had the blazer in hand, the price had dropped to $4. I was not passing that up!

4. Is it really a bargain?

This is the toughest call you will have to make. Sometimes, resale clothing is priced just slightly less — or not much less — than something brand new. Always go with something new if this is the case. Here are some ways you can tell if it’s really a bargain. First, of course, look at the price and really check out the item. Is it clean? How worn is it? Are the buttons tightly sewn or hanging by one thread? Is the fabric a really strong, comfortable one, or something dirt cheap that will fall apart in the washing machine? Ask yourself these questions and compare to the price. At the same consignment store where I found the nice blazer, I found a sleeveless sweater top I could wear over or under something for only $8. That would have been a pretty sweet deal — if the shirt didn’t have deodorant stains on it. Keep in mind that the vast majority of these items have been worn, and some are very well-worn. You want to avoid these.

You also have to consider the brand name. Is it designer? Maybe $50 isn’t a bad price for something worn on a European runway. The opposite can happen. I personally found some clothing at a consignment shop two weeks ago that had brands commonly sold at Wal-Marts, and these items were priced around $15. At Wal-Mart, you can easily get new stuff for that price, if not cheaper. I passed those up.

5. Consider your causes.

Many resale shops are non-profit and the money goes to charities. Therefore, you want to make sure the charity you will support with your purchase is one you really want to support. Sometimes, you may want to seek out these stores because they have causes you truly believe in. The North Carolina resale shop where I found the coats supports a group that works to provide services for domestic violence victims. This is a cause I really like to support, so I seek this place out anytime I’m in the area. On the flipside, there may be a charity you don’t support for whatever reason. Even if they do have designer bags, do you really want you money going to something you abhor?

Hunting through resale shops means a lot of digging, but once you find that diamond in the pile of ugly Christmas sweaters, victory is sweet. Happy hunting!