Kara Hoholik started thrifting several years ago to freshen up her children’s wardrobes and make some money selling what they had outgrown.
“It was a financial decision, but I also wanted to do things more sustainably and it was fun. I would just put everything that I wanted to resell in a large ‘clean-out bag’ and ship it from my porch,” said the mother of three from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who made at least $1000 a year in cash and credit as a consignor. “It was convenient and easy.”
Not anymore as more consumers jump on the resale bandwagon during the pandemic.
“When it became trendy to be sustainable, consignment shops — both in-person and online — started getting pickier about what they would and wouldn’t take," said Hoholik, noting one online resale platform stopped sending clean-out bags and even turned down some of her brand new items with tags.
As the secondhand market continues to explode (It is projected to double in the next five years, reaching $77 billion in annual sales by 2025, according to GlobalData), guidelines are getting even stricter as excess supply piles up.
“They’re getting very selective about hard goods in particular — sofas, tables, chairs,” said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a research and consulting firm. “They will come to your house and literally take nothing, and that’s if they come at all.”
Our lifestyle changes — especially as work-from-home and hybrid arrangements become more permanent — have only complicated matters.
“There’s not much demand for that perfect pencil skirt, or other things that seem so ‘yesterday.' Why invest in cashmere sweaters to wear around the house?" Corlett said. "They’re only going to accept what their client base is going to take.”
Instead, timeless pieces — including handbags, totes and accessories — are selling well, as are items with sentimental value, she added.
While this means better selection for buyers, there are consequences beyond stricter guidelines for consignors, said Adele Meyer, executive director of The Association of Resale Professionals.
“It’s taking longer to process items and get them on the floor, customer service is overwhelmed, things are getting lost, and there’s a shortage of qualified workers that nearly every industry is facing," Meyer said.
“The supply chain issues have turned everything upside down,” Corlett added.
“AI, which is where the industry is going, is making things worse because you’re removing the human component and eliminating personalized service," Morse said. "Plus, if you do one thing AI doesn’t like, you’re banned from the site.”
Some thrifters (myself included) have experienced this firsthand after having difficulty returning an item that somehow got lost in the mail. This incident was preceded by several other issues — from inaccurate product descriptions to lowball pricing — that took months to resolve.
What’s a frustrated consignor to do?
“More resellers are doing it on their own,” said Morse, who, with her business partner, Clara Albornoz, has been in the resale business for a combined 40 years.
Others, like Hoholik is simply donating her gently-used items. And she is not alone, said Corlett.
“Thrift stores around the country are getting a deluge of donations and bins are overflowing. I even know of a consignment shop near Central Park that’s giving away things for free,” Corlett said. “This is what it’s come to.”
Personal Finance Journalist Vera Gibbons is a former staff writer for SmartMoney magazine and a former correspondent for Kiplinger's Personal Finance. Vera, who spent over a decade as an on air Financial Analyst for MSNBC, currently serves as co-host of the weekly nonpolitical news podcast she founded, NoPo. She lives in Palm Beach, Florida.