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Consignment competition sees small-time shops suffer

Christine Clifford, owner of the Clothes Line Too consignment boutique in Clearwater, Fla. stands in the center of her store surrounded by hundreds of trendy clothing pieces, colorfully decorated walls, sparkling jewelry and three smiling customers. If one didn’t know any better, this place might seem like just another expensive clothing store in the mall, and that these four women were simply carrying on together like best friends shopping on a typical Saturday afternoon.

Clothes Line Too is one of many consignment shops or clothing resale stores where people can bring in their old clothes to be considered for consignment. Many people don’t realize it, but places like this are more than just good for the few extra bucks they provide their clients’ wallets.

“I love my job because of the people. They become like family and you discover there’s more good out there than you might think,” Clifford says, as she pushes up a cheerful grin and hangs some new items on a nearby rack. “During certain times of the year, like around Christmas, my assistant Trisha and I will do something I call ‘late-nights’ where we’ll keep the store open extra hours for people who work late. For example, last year a man came in with three women. He gave them each $50 to buy whatever clothes they wanted. The women, I found out later, were some of his employees, single mothers who just needed a little help. I thought to myself, what a nice guy.”

“We also put out flyers during the holidays, providing discounts to people who bring in toys that we will later donate to children’s charities. It’s this sort of stuff that makes you feel good about life in general. I’m just glad I can help out,” chimes in Trisha Villa, Clifford’s assistant manager.

Outfitting tight-pocketed customers in name brand, top quality clothing is what these shops do best. Many people can’t afford to shop at higher-priced stores, and these shops provide a comparable alternative for them.

“The only clothing stores I shop at are consignment. With prices on just about everything seeming to rise these days, the last thing I want to worry about is clothing. With consignment shops, I find all that I’m looking for in one place, I avoid the giant crowds of the mall and I can afford to keep up with the current style trends,” said Laurie Hrizai, one of Clifford’s many perusing customers. “I don’t know what I would do without these places.”

With over 25,000 resale shops operating in the United States, it’s the very few big timers like Plato’s and Buffalo Exchange, giant resale shop chains that make most of the money, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Individually owned shops usually don’t attract the attention that these new names do because they’re older and aren’t appealing to the younger crowds where the fashion draw seems to be currently.

Plato’s Closet, which caters to teen fashion, opened some 200 franchises since 1999, and rang up more than $100 million in sales in 2006, planning to open 35 additional stores this year, reported by Plato’s Closet Online.

“My biggest competition is other consignment shops, especially those like Plato’s Closet. I just can‘t afford the advertising they can. The best I can do is have flyers made and draw out a big sign for the front window,” says Clifford. “Plato’s has come around to our area within the last few years and it has hurt my business.”

It’s becoming more difficult for the small-time, individually owned consignment shops to compete with the giant resale stores who are constantly buying more and more space and coming into more and more areas.

“The problem is that people just don’t dress as professionally as they used to,” said Myra Levine, owner of The Closet Collection consignment boutique. “I used to make decent money selling blazers suits and pants suits, but now it’s all about t-shirts and jean skirts.”

Consignment shops also provide a rather curious service and surprising attraction to a special part of the community with which they share.

“I sell only women’s clothing in my shop, and one time I had a man come in here and try on some skirts. He just swished around in front of the mirrors for like five minutes. I was so shocked that I just sat behind the counter silent and staring. It was the strangest thing. He came out of the changing room dressed like a man, but as he walked through the doors I noticed he was wearing heels,” says Levine of a past experience. “When business gets very slow, I think about opening up a shop for cross dressers because I’d probably make more money.”

“Cross-dressers…they come in cliques. It’s hilarious. I think they feel more comfortable trying on women’s clothing in a store like this instead of somewhere like JC Penney,” says Clifford. “There’s less exposure and we’re probably friendlier.”

About 12 to 15 percent of Americans will shop at a consignment shop during a given year; this is considering that during the same time frame 11.4 percent of Americans will shop in factory outlet malls, 19.6 percent in apparel stores and 21.3 percent in major department stores, according to America’s Research Group.

“I’d like to say consignment shops will be around forever, but with all the competition from departments stores that can cut prices 50 to 70 percent, making it so a person can buy something brand new for the price I sell it at used, I just don’t know,” says Judy McNeil, owner of Wee Bit Consignment Boutique, reflecting on the future of consignment.

“I think they’re going to grow. There’s no way they can’t. People realize the good bargains and quality of the items. You go to the mall and it’s three times the price of what consignment offers. People will talk down about it being other peoples’ clothes, but they don’t think about how many people have tried on stuff at the mall and have just come from the beach,” said Betty DeGray, a consignment shopper.