Secondhand Shopping During Coronavirus: Sites are Thriving; Stores are Closing

Secondhand Shopping During Coronavirus: Sites are Thriving; Stores are Closing

For the last four months, Laurie Sigelman, an accountant in her late 40s who lives in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, has been waiting impatiently for her favorite stores on Melrose Avenue to reopen.

It isn’t a fresh pair of Newbury boots from Rag & Bone or a summery sheath from Marc Jacobs that she’s been gunning for, but their timeworn, wallet-friendly counterparts lining the shelves at resale shops like Wasteland and Crossroads Trading Co.

“I’m allergic to paying retail prices,” Ms. Sigelman said over the phone while driving around to check in on her favorite secondhand spots, an almost daily ritual.

The heightened focus on hygiene and worries about contamination since the pandemic have not changed that, she said. “I’ve done my research, and I’m not at all reticent. The virus doesn’t seem to sit on a piece of clothing for very long.”

Ms. Sigelman is one of a select group of shoppers whose loyalty to the secondhand market, with its good deals, ecological cred and emphasis on individual style (in a world dominated by copycat fast fashion), will not be swayed by the coronavirus.

Online resellers like Poshmark and Thredup have thrived during the pandemic, providing the stir-crazy and housebound with an easy closet clean-out option through the mail. But for some secondhand shoppers, nothing can compare to the hunt IRL. Michelle Plantan, a social media director living in Venice who has bought a few items of vintage clothing on online platforms and Instagram over the past few months, said the experience just doesn’t compare to the in-store search.

“There’s so much magic in just browsing and trying on pieces in real life,” Ms. Plantan, 31, said. “And when shopping secondhand or vintage, you really want to see the fabric and quality up close, which is harder to do online.”

Determining sizes can also be hard on online platforms, given that many secondhand and vintage items have been previously worn or were made by older brands with different sizing systems.

“When you buy a used pair of Diesel jeans, they’re not going to fit the same way they would if they were brand-new,” said Gabriel Block, the C.E.O. of Crossroads Trading Co, a resale chain founded in 1991 that now has 37 locations in the United States.

Still, online resellers are well on their way to winning over any reluctant consumers, with the category expected to jump from $30 million in the United States in 2020 to $70 million by 2027, according to research from Future Market Insights, a retail analytics firm. If that comes to pass, the online market will outpace traditional in-store thrift and resale, which is expected to drop from $57 million in 2020 to $50 million by 2027.

The pandemic, which has decimated the sales of many small businesses, if not closed them entirely, may well accelerate this shift.

“I’m worried about the viability of these businesses existing in big cities like New York and Los Angeles,” said Jessica Tran, the founder of Ghost Vintage, which has sold predominantly at outdoor thrift markets in New York and, now, online. “It seems far-fetched that they’ll be able to keep paying rent with a possible second wave and people shopping less.”

Shopping for clothing of any kind has been scaled back over the last few months, with factors like unemployment (now 11.1 percent) and a recent rise in coronavirus cases slowing reopenings across the country. According to a July survey from Mintel, 33 percent of people have stopped buying clothes entirely, while 32 percent have concerns about shopping for clothes in a store.

This bleak reality, however, has led some of the secondhand market’s most loyal shoppers to view continued in-store shopping as a moral imperative, to keep the small businesses that underpin the market alive.

“It’s personal for me to support them and see how they’re doing because I’ve shopped there so much,” said Ms. Sigelman. She is on a first-name basis with the staff at many of the secondhand shops scattered across Los Angeles, where she has found treasured pieces like an Alexander McQueen peplum blazer for $750 and a pair of Ann Demeulemeester boots for $50.

Ms. Plantan, whose closet is almost entirely filled with secondhand clothes, feels similarly. “I love talking to and meeting the people from whom I’m buying,” she said. “It deepens the story of and connection to the pieces you find.”

But she’s also not without her hesitations, citing not just a fear of germs but the often crowded spaces that sell such wares. “So many of the best thrift spots border on an almost hoarder-like approach when it comes to merchandising, with piles of stuff everywhere,” she said.

The wall-to-wall racks that are common in these stores also make for especially narrow walkways, forcing shoppers to regularly brush up against other people, mounds of used clothing or both. “How do you navigate those spaces now?” Ms. Plantan said.

At resale chains like Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads Trading Co. and Wasteland, which are more corporate than one-off, hole-in-the-wall shops, in-store capacity has been reduced to about 50 percent, with fitting rooms closed and extended return policies implemented to make up for the inability to try things on.

Masks and social distancing are required, with many locations using signs and floor stickers to guide traffic in an effort to eliminate the usual jams. Items carried around the store but not purchased get quarantined in the back for 24 hours, a time out that owners aren’t even sure is necessary. Many stores are discouraging or outright refusing cash payments to lessen contamination risk.

Some of these new guidelines seem moot: Many businesses report doing 50 percent or less of their pre-pandemic business on a good day, with no expectations of that number increasing anytime soon.

“People are still trying to get used to this new normal, figuring out how to do the things they used to do in a different way, and if they even want to,” said Mr. Block, of Crossroads.

Inventory, though, is high, with time-rich and money-strapped customers eager to clean out their closets for cash or credit. Wasteland, a California chain known for selling the offloaded designer pieces of celebrity stylists and costume designers, had two of its stores in Los Angeles looted during the George Floyd protests in May, leaving both locations nearly empty. But after a few weeks, the stores were fully restocked.

Before the pandemic, lines to sell at many of these stores trickled out the door and around the block, often with an anticlimactic conclusion (most buyers are picky, with $30 considered a high payout). With selling now moved to appointment only at most of these stores, with a 40-to-50-piece limit on the number of items sellers can bring in, friction on both sides of the exchange has been lessened.

“We’re finding that customers are actually bringing us a better selection of clothing to start with than they were before,” said Rebecca Block, the vice president of Buffalo Exchange (and Mr. Block’s cousin). The chains are now considering implementing this format permanently.

Clothing sold to these stores is placed on hold for 24 hours, in the hopes that any viral contamination lingering on the fabric will dissipate before it goes on sale. Shoes and sunglasses get sprayed with disinfectant where possible. It’s a tedious, uncertain process but one that store owners believe they can’t afford not to do.

Research on how coronavirus interacts with different surfaces is still in its infancy and has been largely inconclusive, particularly when it comes to fabric, but most experts say that aerodynamics make it unlikely for a droplet of the virus to settle on clothing, and that if it does, it may not survive very long.

Still, of all the industries grappling with newfound shopper hesitations, the secondhand market may be most familiar with such stigmas: It’s a market that customers have historically either loved or found Windex worthy. Even before the pandemic, 55 percent of shoppers worried about cleanliness when buying pre-owned items, according to Mintel, the market research firm.

“There’s long been a taboo around shopping secondhand, people see it as dirty and time-consuming,” said Ms. Tran of Ghost Vintage. “My own mother used to tell me I could get diseases from shopping vintage!”

The 2008 recession and subsequent price consciousness in consumers made discount-driven flash-sale sites like Gilt and Groupon more popular. This time around, it will be the secondhand market that thrives as a cheaper option that has the added benefit of being better for the environment, said Alexis DeSalva, a senior research analyst at Mintel.

Those perks are expected to outweigh any distaste shoppers have for used goods, which sites like eBay, Etsy and TheRealReal have helped assuage.

“All of this time at home has left people considering how wasteful the fashion industry is,” Ms. DeSalva said. “When people do treat themselves during this period, they can rationalize it more when it’s better for both their wallets and the environment.”

The owners of smaller secondhand stores are split on what the pandemic’s long term outcome will be on their business, with some optimistic that a vaccine will be developed and things will return to normal, and others feeling wary.

Buffalo Exchange has permanently closed two of its locations, in Berkeley, Calif., and Charlotte, N.C., both of which relied largely on college students, who may not return in the fall. Crossroads management has been negotiating with landlords for months and is considering closing some stores when leases are up if it can’t cut a deal and sales are still low.

Many old-fashioned secondhand retailers are also debating whether to increase their e-commerce efforts.

Wasteland, which tested an online store in 2014 but found the results underwhelming, is now considering bringing it back in case of future shutdowns. Executives at Crossroads and Buffalo Exchange believe the business’s low margins make a move to online a mostly worthless pursuit.

“The investment required to get online selling right is just beyond our scale and capacity,” Mr. Block said. “Irrespective of the virus’s impact, we still believe that in the long term, in-store resale will be successful. The immediate satisfaction people get from that treasure hunt isn’t going to disappear.”

The market’s most loyal shoppers, at least, are unwilling to write off the pleasures of the in-store search just yet.

“It can be hypnotic, imaginative, humorous, surprising,” Ms. Plantan said. “I find it therapeutic, in a way.”

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