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Used Clothing Stores Enjoying Downturn
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Used Clothing Stores Enjoying Downturn

Business

Used Clothing Stores Enjoying Downturn

Used Clothing Stores Enjoying Downturn
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The nation's retailers are struggling. A slumping economy has kept shoppers out of stores from Saks to Abercrombie & Fitch to Gap. But for one small sector, the downturn has brought an uptick in business.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. The economy is tanking, and consumers aren't consuming much, but many retailers will live to sell another day. Thanks to this weekend's sales figures, shoppers spent three percent more on Black Friday this year than they did in 2007. While this boost will help to keep some stores afloat, most of the nation's retailers are struggling. But for one small sector, the downturn has actually meant an uptick in business. NPR's Tamara Keith explains.

TAMARA KEITH: Three or four years ago, Diana Calacut(ph) was shopping at Neiman Marcus, and she saw an outfit that made her swoon.

Ms. DIANA CALACUT: Escada cashmere suit and matching cape with fox trim.

KEITH: It was $8,000. She didn't even try it on. She's a school administrator in Montgomery County, Maryland, not a millionaire. Then on a recent visit to her favorite consignment shop, there it was on display in the window.

Ms. CALACUT: When it's meant to be, you get it.

KEITH: So she got it. Even though it was close to $1,000, the way Calacut sees it, she saved thousands.

Ms. CALACUT: I love to just have pretty things, and that's what I aspire to. And so, I came by coming here to get those things. Otherwise, I just have to look and dream. That's it.

KEITH: And while Neiman Marcus saw its October same-store sales drop more than 27 percent from the year before, Chic to Chic, where Calacut shops, had its best month ever. Ellen Didion is the shop's owner.

Ms. ELLEN DIDION (Owner, Chic to Chic): I'm still a little guarded in every day I come in here, and I'm like just amazed at what kind of numbers we're doing.

KEITH: A bad economy isn't necessarily bad for Didion. She recently opened a second store.

Ms. DIDION: Some of our customers aren't able to spend as much, so they'll buy some of the lesser-priced items, or they'll cut back on their shopping. And other women that would have normally been able to shop in Neiman's or at Sak's are looking for ways to save, and they're making up by buying quantity in here.

KEITH: What sets consignment stores apart from other types of used clothing stores is the relationship with the people who bring in the clothes. At thrift shops, the clothes are donated. Here are at Chic to Chic, consigners bring in their unwanted clothes, and store managers decide which items they think will sell.

Once a sweater or skirt or fur coat is purchased, the store keeps half and the person who brought in the items get half. It's a way for people with clothes they aren't wearing to make a little extra cash. And Didion says more people than ever are bringing clothes in.

Ms. DIDION: We, right now, have the best collection we've ever ever ever had, and the pieces are stunning. The customer comments and compliments are wonderful, and it's a nice place to be during this time - during these difficult times. You come in here, you forget all the stuff that's going on outside.

KEITH: New survey data from the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops finds that in September and October, most stores reported significant increases in sales and incoming inventory. Executive Director Adele Mayer says sales were up an average of 35 percent year over year.

Ms. ADELE MAYER (Executive Director, National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops): This has always been recession-proof, and in times of the slow economy, there's always greater increases. People look for new ways to save money and make money, and resale is - turning to the resale industry is just a natural thing to do.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, have you sold clothing with us before?

KEITH: At the Mustard Seed, a used clothing store in Podesta, Maryland, appointments to bring in clothes to sell book up two weeks in advance. Huba Rusoka(ph) is selling clothes for the first time.

Ms. HUBA RUSOKA: I didn't realize that I have many many things in my closet that I don't wear at all. So I realized that it's a time of recession, and I better go to my closet and see what I didn't wear for the last year.

KEITH: She says it was the major hit her 401K and other investments have taken in recent weeks that prompted her to come in. The Mustard Seed's customers include teenagers and young professionals, so it tends to carry more affordable labels.

Ms. GAYLE HERRMANN (Co-Owner, The Mustard Seed Clothing Co.): They want to have perceived value.

KEITH: Gayle Herrmann, the store's co-owner, is also enjoying a boom in business. She says, instead of spending $300 on a dress at a high-end department store...

Ms. HERRMANN: Maybe they'd pay $42 for a cute little printed dress. Then they can get a sweater for $12, maybe J. Crew, and a pair of shoes, and all under $75. So I do think that people feel better about their purchases.

KEITH: But Herrmann and her business partner aren't exactly celebrating. They worry that if people aren't buying new clothes now, their inventory on the resale side could eventually suffer. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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