Person-To-Person Sales Outlets Succeeding

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Some businesses are defying the economic downturn. On the Web, Etsy, eBay and Craigslist are seeing solid sales numbers. And old-fashioned thrift stores, consignment shops and flea markets are also doing well.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Sticking with the good news, here's another niche doing well - consignment stores where you can buy secondhand designer clothes. Shia Levitt reports.

SHIA LEVITT: At Ina Consignment Store in Manhattan, shoppers are picking through the racks of secondhand jackets and skirts from brands like Fendi, Prada and Gucci. Today, shopper Antonia Kujoharava(ph) is trying to sell back two pairs of designer high-heeled shoes. The woman behind the counter offers her $125 for one pair and then examines the second.

Unidentified Woman #1: Seventy on these?

Ms. ANTONIA KUJOHARAVA (Consigner): OK.

LEVITT: The shoes are given a price tag and added to the store shelves. If both pairs sell, Kujoharava gets almost $200.

Ms. KUJOHARAVA: You could bring your things to a consignment shop instead of gathering dust in your closet, and you could get some money to buy something that you actually want to use and want to wear.

LEVITT: Store owner Milo(ph) Bernstein has a small chain of high-end consignment stores, including this one. In the fall, he says, so many people wanted to sell back clothes that appointments were often booked up a week or two in advance.

Mr. MILO BERNSTEIN (Consignment Store Owner): We had several men who had never consigned before who consigned, you know, their entire collection or their entire wardrobe of really expensive suits. One man consigned a lot of Tom Brown suits because he said he no longer had the job that he was wearing them at, and that he needed to make some money.

LEVITT: It seems logical that more people would try to cycle their wardrobes back into cash during a recession. But are there enough customers around to buy the stuff? Bernstein says he noticed an upswing in business both ways.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Right after the stock market went down, it wasn't sort of an instant influx of customers or consigners, but probably over the period of a month or so, we certainly started getting a lot more clothing in than we had before, and also a lot more customers.

Unidentified Woman #2: How would you like to pay?

Unidentified Woman #3: Cash.

Unidentified Woman #2: OK.

LEVITT: Bernstein says 2008 was the best year yet for each of his stores. In fact, nearly three-fourths of the members surveyed by the National Association of Retail and Thrift Shops said sales were up in the last quarter of 2008 compared to the year before. And they're not the only ones who seem encouraged by sales recently. A number of Web sites help people sell directly to one another, person to person, bypassing traditional stores altogether. Business on both Craigslist and eBay has gone up. Even the elite, invitation-only networking site, A Small World, has seen an uptick in the number of luxury items listed on its marketplace. People are also selling handmade items at crafts fairs and online.

Ms. CAROL WANAMAKER (Resident, New York): I just love working with the old salvage book pages, vintage books and so forth. These are…

LEVITT: Standing in her living room in Buffalo, New York, Carol Wanamaker(ph) is preparing to sell her handmade magnets and other items at a local crafts fair. She unwraps a small piece of felt and Irish lace to show off a pendant necklace she made from glass tile and a green, vintage postage stamp.

Ms. WANAMAKER: Look at that, isn't that cute for St. Patrick's Day? These were my St. Patrick's Day Irish stamps that I'm putting under glass…

LEVITT: Wanamaker began selling her items in late 2007. When the economy crashed this past fall and many retail businesses were sinking, her sales numbers went the opposite direction.

Ms. WANAMAKER: This fall, it sort of exploded. Starting in October, things really picked up.

LEVITT: If her business continues to grow this fast, Wanamaker says she could surpass the salary she earned as an adjunct teacher. Wanamaker is among thousands of artists selling items on Etsy, a Web site for buying and selling handmade goods. Etsy's Adam Brown says the Web site had 12 record-setting days in November, and posted great numbers around the first few days of the economic collapse. And membership more than doubled, to 2 million users, in the past nine months.

Mr. ADAM BROWN (Founder, Etsy): You're buying directly from the artists and you're not having to pay any middlemen, and you're also not paying as much for markup as, say - if you buy something in a store, you're paying for the overhead and the electricity and the cost of running a shop. But the costs of running an Etsy shop are almost negligible.

LEVITT: Bernstein's consignment shop and Wanamaker's craft sales don't seem as hurt by the financial downturn so far. The question is how long businesses like theirs will be able to stay afloat and whether they, too, will start to feel the squeeze other retailers are feeling before the recession is over. For NPR News, I'm Shia Levitt in New York.

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