Online thrift stores give deal-hunters new ways to score

NEW YORK  — It's not just eBay anymore. A slew of websites and apps act as virtual thrift stores for vintage devotees, deal hunters and those just looking to unload stuff they don't want anymore.

These sites have proliferated as the recession of a decade ago and the slow comeback in wages since then dramatically altered how people shop. Discounters like T.J. Maxx have been sweeping up, while many traditional retailers have shrunk, gone bankrupt or disappeared. The stigma of "used" has fallen away, and many now shop knowing full well they can sell their pieces later and get some money back. Some consider buying used clothes online a more eco-conscious approach to trends.


There's a range to the Goodwills and consignment stores of the internet. Some cater to kids or young adults; some are specifically for high-end fashion; some are a free-for-all. Online, stuff may be more expensive than at an actual thrift store, especially when you add in shipping costs. But in many cases, it's also easier to find stuff — no dusty racks, no piles of clothing, and you can search for a brand name and item without leaving your couch. There's often room to negotiate price.

The best sites create an experience for shoppers that's not only easier to navigate than an actual thrift store but better than going to a traditional store and buying something new (at full price), said Anita Balchandani, a McKinsey partner.

Willie Walton hangs clothing on a three-tiered conveyor system at the ThredUp sorting facility in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)


It's hard to determine how big the used-clothing market is but you can see increasing consumer interest in it due to the growing number of companies engaged in it, said Balchandani, who is co-author of a report predicting that consumers will use more "preowned" or rented clothing, a la Rent the Runway's model of renting out clothes to its subscribers.

The best-known online marketplace that connects individual sellers and buyers is eBay. But sites built for different purposes also function as bargain-hunting middlemen. You can list your wares on neighborhood app Nextdoor, Craigslist and Facebook's marketplace. In these cases, you're typically limited by geography as these sites mostly connect locals, pointed out Kathy Kristof, editor of the SideHusl website that gives tips on gig jobs. Some people also use Facebook's groups function, dedicated to specific brands, and ship to each other across the country. Etsy also is more wide-ranging.


Fraud protections vary on these platforms. Etsy and eBay have a process to resolve disputes. On the others, it may be free to post listings, but that means there is no mediator when things go wrong.

On some sites, sellers manage their own "closets." They can try to develop a personal following by using social media to promote themselves and ingratiate themselves to buyers by enclosing thank-you notes with purchases.

"A lot of my sales come solely from Instagram," said Haley Gibbs, 24, who resells clothes that she picks up from thrift stores in Minneapolis, where she lives. She sells on Poshmark, a site that's a grab-bag of styles and prices. She sends handwritten notes to her buyers, whom she considers a supportive community that helped her transition to selling full-time.


The whole look and feel of Depop, an app popular with teens and young adults, is reminiscent of Instagram, complete with stylized posts by wannabe influencers. Other sites cater to parents of young children, like Kidizen. It's a market that makes particular sense for used clothing, since kids grow so fast.

For those focused on high-end items, like deluxe watches, designer garments and gently used handbags that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, a model like TheRealReal guarantees that the merchandise is authentic. The company's employees, not individual sellers, sets prices and the site takes a hefty cut — it can be over half of the selling price. But buyers are able to trust that a Hermes scarf is actually Hermes.


Reselling and refurbishing used clothes is attracting so much attention that some resale sites are striking partnerships with retail names more than a century old. J.C. Penney and Macy's are working with ThredUP, which operates similarly to TheRealReal in that a customer buys from the middleman, not from another individual. (ThredUP does not have the same singular high-end focus, though.) Neiman Marcus has an arrangement with Fashionphile, in which it owns a minority stake. There's a plan for customers to be able to sell their old handbags and accessories to Fashionphile inside Neiman Marcus' luxury department stores.