When attorney Charity Kenyon appeared before the California Supreme Court a few years ago, she was fashionably dressed in serious-lawyer attire. Yet from head to toe, her courtroom ensemble — heels, black skirt and a high-end Ralph Lauren jacket — was purchased from secondhand stores. Total cost: no more than $125.
Likewise, Alison Merrilees, a longtime California Capitol staffer, works in a world of designer-clad lobbyists and legislators. On a recent summer workday, she sported a stylish striped skirt and a polka-dot silk sweater. Both came from a thrift shop. Total cost: $6.
Both women are committed thrifters, a category of shoppers who buy most of their casual and workday wardrobes from “gently used” clothing stores. Their motivations are partly environmental, partly frugal, partly thrill-of-the-hunt fun.
Kenyon, who started shopping secondhand about 15 years ago, said it's a way to be both economical and “feel as though I'm contributing less to environmental impacts. It's 100 percent recycling.”
Thrift-store clothing is also a way to sidestep so-called “fast fashion,” the inexpensive, trendy clothes churned out cheaply in overseas factories.
“I don't like the idea of buying cheap, disposable clothes. Secondhand shopping breaks that cycle,” said Merrilees.
The recent recession had a huge impact on the thrift shop industry, said Michael Gold, founder of TheThriftShopper.com, a Vero Beach, Fla.-based directory of charity-based secondhand stores. He said his listings have jumped past 11,100 in recent years.
“People are thrifting more than ever,” he said. “There was a stigma that's been disappearing as thrift shops become more boutique-y.”
In 2012, the “used merchandise” industry, which includes sellers of apparel, furniture, books and jewelry, racked up $13 billion in annual revenue, according to First Research, which profiles U.S. industries.
For many veteran thrifters, though, it's just plain fun.
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“It lets me take risks, buying things I would never do if I were paying full price,” said Merrilees, like her eye-popping turquoise-and-teal brocade coat that always draws compliments.
Does she ever feel self-conscious about where her designer labels come from?
She sometimes has to “bite my tongue” rather than reveal she paid only $10 for a skirt or is wearing someone else's castoffs.
Indeed, 80 percent of consumers surveyed in recent years by America's Research Group said they'd “never buy” someone else's worn clothing.
“A lot of people don't want to buy something used because of health concerns,” Chairman and CEO Britt Beemer said.
Yet the troubled economy drives consumers to hunt for used-clothing bargains. In a back-to-school shopping survey in July, America's Research Group reported that 18.9 percent of U.S. adults said they had shopped in a secondhand store during the last year.