Monthly Archives: January 2009

Going Cheap: shopping in dark times

It is early December and one particularly unlucky Wal-Mart employee was recently killed by a stampede of eager shoppers on what turned out to be the blackest of Black Fridays. As the clock neared five a.m. the bargain-crazed throng broke through the sliding plated-glass doors trampling the unfortunate and unprepared, Jdimytai Damour, in their quest for half-off high-definition TV’s, camcorders, DVDs, mp3 players, pepper mills, bed linens, and Giddyup n’ go pony’s. And who can blame them?

Times are tough (or a at least tougher) for just about everyone. Even those still flash with disposable income are keeping things discreet, buying the $200 pair of sunglasses instead of those for $400, to “be a better person.” In fact just about the only people spending with the same wild abandon are students. Like the gaggle of young women at the recent Clothes Show Live in Birmingham, England who flippantly responded to The Guardian’s Hadley Freedman’s question about feeling the sting of the credit crunch with, “We’re students so it doesn’t really effect us.”

“Thrift,” the Sears Roebuck catalogue declared in 1930, “is the spirit of the day,” it’s a sentiment that was almost overly optimistic at the beginning of the Great Depression, but it’s a phrase that’s just as relevant to today’s consumer mentality as it was then. And nowhere is this spirit for thrift more obvious and seductive as in the style sections of newspapers and on the covers of fashion magazines. Headlines that mix thrift and style abound, in just about every publication, even those not usually known for their penny pinching.

American Vogue tried to woo Christmas shoppers with the promise of “Exceptional gifts from $5-$500,” on their January cover, flanked by Jennifer Aniston in an understated designer dress. (A quick peek at the list, however, revealed that the majority of the suggestions tipped towards the higher end of the budget, making it all the less affordable and exceptional.) And they’re not alone, even publications dedicated to promoting luxury items and lifestyles are toning it down.

With the new sense of thrift comes a revamped way of looking at secondhand and consignment stores and there’s been a push within the style pages to express both the practical (it’s cheaper) and ethical (it’s environmental) sides of shopping at these types of stores. As consumers we’re not only being asked to change how we shop, but where we shop.

A recent New York Times article discussed Goodwill’s growing popularity and their new advertising slant, which focuses on the idea that not only are you shopping, but you’re also being altruistic. This marriage of consumption and selflessness is then taken a step further to include the current perceived cool of used and vintage clothing. It’s now a triple threat; you’re allowing yourself to indulge in that great tradition of shopping, helping people in need and tapping into the great unknown, otherwise known as coolness all in one single trip to your local charity shop.

The Goodwill in Washington, D.C. is one of the most proactive in the U.S., with an up-to-date style blog, helmed by their very own Goodwill fashionista, the aim is to keep readers on trend while giving back to the local community. They even have they’re very own customized eBay store  where many of the pieces the fashionista writes about eventually turn up on the auction block. It’s thrifting without leaving your house.

And, at least for Goodwill, the push for thrift as cool, seems to be working. Even before the September crash, the company was reporting a seven percent rise in profits over last year and more recent numbers report an average increase of 10 percent for Goodwill’s across the U.S. and Canada between the months of October and November. Not bad when you consider the rest of the retail industry has continued to see profits slide and prices slashed, the latest November numbers pointed to a drop of 1.8 percent.

Charity shops aren’t the only ones garnering attention and making a profit. High-end consignment and vintage stores are also reporting increases not only in sales but also in stock. An article in the L.A. Times published in early October reported on the trend of increased sales at two prominent secondhand L.A. boutiques, The Way We Wore and Decadestwo. The article made passing mention of the fact that much of the newer stock at Decadestwo, a consignment store, were the cast-offs of closest-cleaning celebrities and “social stars,” who, much like the rest of us, were shedding unwanted clutter in the hopes that even the littlest profit would help to ease the current economic hangover. 

There’s little doubt the fresh celeb goods (coupled with the tightening of belts) had something to do with the rise in profits or at the very least the traffic experienced at Decadestwo, who reported an impressive 45 percent increase in porfits over the earnings from the previous summer.  Meanwhile The Way We Wore, which specializes in vintage designer and couture, named stylist and vintage-aficionado Rachel Zoe and clients wanting to “go green” as reasons behind their increase in sales of 22 percent. The differences between the L.A. boutiques and your run-of-the-mill Goodwills, however, are obvious and striking. Not only are they selling two different kinds of secondhand to different types of clients, the discrepancies in savings is also staggering. You might score a great pair of heels in D.C. for five bucks, but even with 70 percent discount most of the designer goods they carry on consignment at those L.A. boutiques are still likely to break the bank. A pair of Jimmy Choos at Decadestwo will set you back $1,400.

Although these success stories seem to suggest that secondhand—be it vintage or thrift—is on the rise, the reality is that the majority of consumers aren’t changing where they shop and it could be argued that Goodwill’s increased profits are not from new clientele but the reliance of steady clients turning to the organization more often in these times of need. Despite the best efforts of style writers, Sarah Palin (consignment stores were good enough for the Governor, until they weren’t and the GOP spent a reported $150, 000 outfitting her) and organizations like Goodwill all of which have been adamant about easing the stigma of secondhand clothes, people are still shopping in the same way, but they’re demanding lower prices and companies are giving it to them.

This year’s been unprecedented in the amount of pre-Christmas sales, and according to accounting firm Ernest and Young, there’s been an 11 percent increase in the amount of promotions at stores throughout the U.K., some stores even slashing prices by as much as 70 percent by mid-November. Stock might not be flying off the shelves, but the public is still buying.

As bleak as all this looks the figures tell a slightly different story, Black Friday profits actually increased this year and preliminary results had the single day profits at  $10.6 billion up three percent from 10.3 billion in 2007. Both of those profits, however, pale in comparison to the numbers from 2006, when the single blow-out day brought in $19 billion in sales. Consumers are being more frugal with their money, but they’re also becoming smarter and getting retailers to bend to their demands of lower prices, without losing their integrity.

The push to wear secondhand and consignment-store clothes isn’t really working, though these stores are making a profit and seeing more of a boost in sales, luxury goods and even regular middle-brow shops are still selling, albeit at a cut rate price. Most, it seems, are willing to go without before going secondhand. But there is a new awareness and in many cases a new consumer consciousness about secondhand retailers that perhaps wasn’t there before, if nothing else consumers have been reminded that these stores exist.

Like any social phenomenon this new financial situation has given birth to an entirely new language, just as this summers soaring gas prices lead to the popularity of the staycation, unsteady markets have lead to a new breed of shoppers.

There’s the bargain fasionista, the rescessionista the Oxford-approved frugalista and the fasionrexic, a term coined after a study in the U.K. discovered that 32 percent of women would choose shopping over food, a preference once associated simply with being a particular kind of woman, now has a catchy, new handle.

If this recession has created nothing else, it has at the very least helped to breed a whole new class of consumers to market to.

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