- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

A Giorgio Armani suit gently worn sits on a rack at Carou-sel Consignmentsmarked down to less than $500 about one third the original price. Carol Alexander, owner of the Rockville shop, doesn't think the deeply discounted designer suit will hang there very long. These days, much of the merchandise at the consignment shop moves quickly as eager shoppers search for bargains and more sellers fill the stores' racks with upscale brands from Chanel to Versace.
Carousel Consignments is one of dozens of Washington-based consignment shops that are reaping the benefits of the slowed economy a time when consumers usually keep a tighter hold on their wallets.
"Our store is economy proof," says Barbara Blesi, co-owner of Second Chance in Bethesda. "People can justify buying here as opposed to buying retail at full price."

Industry growth
The industry has grown dramatically in recent years amid growing awareness of consignment stores as viable shopping venues. Stores have cleaned up their image, expanded their space, opened new locations and branched out into specialty areas like furniture, bridal and sporting goods.
While the exact number of resale shops is not known, the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops (NARTS), a 1,000-member group that represents the industry, estimates that about 15,000 stores exist across the country. And the industry is continuing to grow at about a 10 percent rate each year.
"Most of our members are doing well and better than last year," says Adele Meyer, executive director of NARTS.
Consignment store owners agree that they are much better off these days than traditional apparel stores as shoppers are looking for bargains and sellers are looking for some extra cash.
"I don't think women are going to stop shopping, regardless of the economy," says Mary Jo Oranburg, who owns Once Is Not Enough in Alexandria. "But when times are tough you feel better about yourself when you get a bargain."
There's no doubt that traditional apparel stores from specialty shops to department stores had a sluggish year in sales. During the first 11 months of 2001, apparel spending sank 3.3 percent to $142.1 billion from a year earlier, according to market researcher NPD Group.
Retail officials say shoppers, spooked in part by economic woes, stayed clear of fashions they considered too expensive or too risky last year.
That's good news for consignment shops many of which carry merchandise that is typically two to three years old at one-third the price found at traditional retailers.
"Our sales are actually higher than they've ever been before," says Shannon Chichester, manager at Secondi, a 15-year-old consignment shop at Dupont Circle.
Ms. Meyer says interest in opening a consignment store has skyrocketed since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"I think people are re-evaluating their lives," Ms. Meyer says. "They want to own their own business."
And while some shoppers shunned pricey clothes after September 11, many combed consignment store racks for that perfect Ann Taylor blouse or Christian Dior shoes.
"Our sales didn't go down [after September 11], I think because more people wanted to give their money to a small business," says Ms. Chichester.
Not all consignment shops in the D.C. area were so lucky.
Last year's sales at Once Is Not Enough were down about 10 percent over the previous year because of the warmer weather and the September 11 attacks, says Ms. Oranburg. Her store was stocked with winter clothes shoppers didn't need, and immediately following the terrorist attacks shoppers nearly abandoned Alexandria's retail scene.
Ms. Oranburg, who has owned the store for two years, is optimistic about the spring season and expects business to get back on track whether the economy continues in a recession or not.
"I think people are going to be excited about the [new season]," she says. "It's going to be a good spring."

Changing scene
Consignment shops haven't always been considered a viable alternative to traditional retail stores.
It wasn't until the late 1980s when the consignment industry began to grow out of its battered image of hole-in-the-wall locations that sold dirty, used clothes.
While all shops that sell "gently used" merchandise are considered resale shops, there's specific destinctions within the industry. Consignment shops accept merchandise on a consignment basis, paying the owners of the merchandise a percentage when and if the items are sold. Consignors usually get anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the cost of the item once it is sold. Thrift shops, on the other hand, are run by a not-for-proft organization to raise money to fund their charitable cause.
Traditionally, consignment stores sell merchandise at about one-third the original retail price and the longer an item lingers in the store the more it gets marked down.
"The idea of resale is at its peak," says Tobe O'Brien, who founded Second Chance and now co-owns it with Mrs. Blesi.
Mrs. O'Brien should know. When she and her mother opened their shop 33 years ago near Mazza Galleria in Washington people were reluctant to give up their brand-name clothes even if they weren't wearing them anymore. Shoppers worried about who would see them buying items that once hung in someone else's closet.
"I've seen it change from where [customers] were hesitant to where they're proud of what they bought," says Mrs. O'Brien, who moved her store to a bigger space in Bethesda about 10 years ago. "So many people were appalled at the idea of buying things secondhand, but now it's widely accepted."
Business grew so much that Mrs. O'Brien needed someone else to help run the store. So she partnered with her friend Mrs. Blesi about three years ago.
Mrs. O'Brien says she's planning to expand her resale business and open a furniture consignment store in Annapolis within the year. Furniture resale is the fastest-growing segment of the consignment business.
The consignment shop landscape in the Washington area has changed dramatically over the years. Just as more shops have opened, many have closed down. But Mrs. O'Brien doesn't think the closings had much to do with the lack of merchandise or the lack of customers. Instead this labor-intensive business got too busy for them.
Besides moving, pricing, labeling and displaying merchandise, consignment-shop owners have to do their homework. They must trek to malls and boutiques to get the latest in prices and keep up with hot fashions.
"I have to go to the malls," says Ms. Chichester. "But I'd rather be reading a magazine." Ms. Chichester says they have to stay on top of prices so when consignors come in they have an idea what the item sells for at retail price. They concede it's easiest when consignors bring in clothes that still have the original price tag, which does frequently occur at these shops.
Shop owners generally don't consider each other to be competition, since the odds of finding the exact piece of clothing at two stores is nearly impossible. The real competition comes from discount powerhouses like Saks Fifth Avenue outlet Off 5th and Nordstrom Rack.
"It's the department stores' alternative to the consignment store," Mrs. O'Brien says.
The only difference she adds is that the merchandise is marked down at these stores because it didn't sell a bad color, a bad fit, a bad design. "It's the remains of the day," Mrs. O'Brien says. "We have [peoples] first choices."

Thrill of the hunt
The industry has grown in popularity for customers and consignors two groups that wouldn't benefit if the other didn't exist.
Since March 2000, Once is Not Enough has had 400 new consignors bring in merchandise, Ms. Oranburg says. While it adds to the work load, she says it shows the business is expanding.
Carousel Consignments has more than 2,400 consignors over the last eight years and that number is growing every day.
Some consignors return on a regular basis with clothes to sell. One consignor has brought in more than 2,600 items to the store.
On average Carousel Consignments sends out about 200 checks per month to consignors for merchandise that has been sold at the store. The consignors get 50 percent of the cost of an item.
Mrs. Alexander says consignors from all over the world from Israel and France to Beverly Hills and New York ship their clothes to the Rockville shop. It gives the consignors more of a chance to sell their items and gives "us a wonderful eclectic collection," Mrs. Alexander says.
And it's that collection that keeps customers like Elena Fournier shopping there every two weeks or so.
"This is quality stuff I can't afford to buy new," Mrs. Fournier says.
The low prices are the biggest draw for customers, Ms. Meyer says. And in hard economic times customers are looking for more for their money.
"It's the thrill of a hunt," she says. "[Shoppers] love to find a bargain."
But price isn't the only factor that keeps costumers returning, shop owners say. In fact the reasons for the booming business are endless, from their personalized service and non-corporate feel to the variety of merchandise.
"People do not like malls and they want variety," Ms. Chichester says. "They can buy jeans and stilettos at the same store."
"Once you've done this you can't go back to the malls," says Peggy Fagley, a Carousel employee and consignment-store shopper.
Consignment shops claim one of their biggest attributes is their service something customers don't get enough of at regular retail shops. And when service and merchandise is top-notch, customers are likely to talk about it as word of mouth has always been the consignment-store industry's best source of advertising.
For some shops, a listing in local telephone books is the only money they will devote to advertising, relying heavily on their regular customers to spread the word.


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