Blog or Not?

A statistically improbable polymath's views on politics and culture.

Friday, September 03, 2004
Thrift Store Economics as Evidence of the State of the Economy
I've been trying to get rid of some of my family's old clothes--Dad's rather nice, but too small suits from the seventies, Mom's "It came from the eighties" specials, and the last remaining pieces of evidence of my regrettable sweaters-with-kittens/suburban soccer mom phase that lasted about three weeks in sixth grade. I bundled them up and brought them to a "hip" resale store, thinking that the seventies' suits would be appreciated by their retro-themed men's department. They took a few ugly-enough-to-be-hip pairs of pants but ignored the brown corduroy and the green flannel.

Today I tried to take the women's stuff to what I had thought was a rather staid women's consignment shop; the kind filled with kitten sweaters and '80s jackets during the Clinton adminstration. They still had some of the old-style stuff there, but I was informed by the staff that they had been instructed to be more selective in what they carried as their store was nearly full to bursting. They were nice enough to give me the numbers of two consignment shops they felt would be more likely to accept some of the pieces, but one of them informed me that they had instituted similarly restrictive policies, and the other one had consignment appointments booked for the next three weeks. Moreover, as I was trying to get rid of the clothing at the other two stores, I was surrounded by people both buying and selling clothing.

The point of this? People who ordinarily would have given their old clothing to Goodwill or the Salvation Army are now trying to sell it all to resale and consignment shops. But why wouldn't people sell their clothes anyways? I have two answers. One is that people feel that they're contributing to charity when they give old clothes to Goodwill, which provides both a feeling of warm satisfaction and a tax write-off. In this economy, more people are feeling the need for immediate cash and less need for tax write-offs. The other reason has to do with perceived value of time--it takes a fair amount of time to prepare clothes for consignment; you have to get the wrinkles out of them, put them on hangers, and get rid of that old ketchup stain from two years ago. In a tight labor market, most people value their time more and therefore aren't willing to put in a lot of effort for the small amount one gets for most secondhand clothing. (Consequently, it would make sense that in a tight labor market a higher percentage of those who put their clothing on consignment were by-choice stay-at-homers, who are more likely than the general female population to buy kitten sweaters.)

Hence, these shops are experiencing a supply glut. (They've also seemed to experience a concurrent increase in demand, but I don't believe it's equivalent to the supply increase.) Before this supply glut, the supply of sellers for resale shops was low enough so that said shops would be forced to buy most clothes that were in good shape and within their target market. Thus, while in richer times a shopper would have found cool stuff at Goodwill and kitten sweaters at consignment shops, a shopper will now find cool stuff at consignment shops and kitten sweaters at Goodwill.

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