Consignment shopping: Stores stay busy in down economy

TRAVERSE CITY – Kate Kohler got used to hearing customers tell her they thought of her store as a hidden treasure of sorts, a place not so easily found but well worth the discovery.

"You have to seek it out, find me, which is part of the fun," said Kohler, owner of Traverse City's Zany, a four-year-old consignment clothing boutique.

It was for this reason that Kohler carefully considered where she'd move Zany when the business grew too large for its former 400 square-foot space on Randolph Street.

"For about a year I was looking for space. I was looking everywhere, but I didn't want to veer far," she said. "I wanted the same feel."

Kohler, one of a handful of consignment shop owners in the area, realizes the importance customers place on the experience they have when shopping second-hand. It's about stumbling upon quality things you can't find just anywhere: that perfect-for-you piece of clothing or just-right home d├ęcor, all at prices you can feel good about paying.

"I think it's because you can get quality clothes for a third of the cost, if not less," said Pamela Haney, owner of Act II, an upscale clothing consignment shop on Barlow Street.

"I think that's what Zany is all about – a mix of great basics and you pair it with unusual, funky rare finds. Things you're not going to see on anybody else," added Kohler, who last fall moved her boutique across Division Street into an historic former two-story home next to Sleder's restaurant. The building, which she is leasing, formerly housed second-hand shop Twice As Nice and provides about three times the space she was used to.

In today's shaky economy, buying second-hand is especially attractive to consumers as they keep a close eye on their pocketbooks, says Janet Ramoie, who three years ago opened furniture re-sale shop Re*clec*tia in a 6,000 square-foot location on South Garfield Avenue. Ramoie continues to see homeowners downsizing and, as a result, bringing items to her.

"With the economy the way it is, it's allowing a business to continue on even in hard times because people are simplifying," she said. "That's allowed our business to stay busy."

"People are bringing in everything from A to Z," Ramoie said. "I joke I have everything but the kitchen sink, but then, oh, I have that in the back. It's been a great hodge-podge of things."

While it varies some from store to store, consignment generally works like this: customers wanting to earn money for their items give the store 60 days to sell them, with the promise that they'll get a cut of 40 to 50 percent of the amount a buyer pays. Another option available at some shops is receiving cash on the spot, though sellers should expect a lesser amount given the risk the store owner takes on when trying to sell the item.

Shop owners tend to be picky about what they opt to consign, and price accordingly.

"We take clothes seasonally, and they must be clean, preferably folded and in good condition," Kohler said. As for prices, "I don't want my prices to be high. I want them to be fair."

Successful second-hand shops take great care with their inventory, organizing clothing by style, size and color. Display is incredibly important, whether it be an entire outfit, including accessories, on a mannequin or a grouping of home pieces to demonstrate different ways of decorating.

"Quality, clean, organized – they don't have to pick through a lot of other things," Haney said of how she sets up her shop. She carries exclusively women's apparel, including plus sizes and maternity clothing.

Kohler considers her shop to be an upscale boutique, and displays are key. She relies on her sister-in-law, Amanda Kohler, to "make the displays intriguing."

"Organizing is something we work hard at," she said. "Amanda really works hard on the displays-it's her knack."

Customers especially like seeing an outfit put together, from head to toe. In many cases, shoppers are looking for help for a particular event, such as a job interview or party, Haney said.

"I had a woman come in here and she had a place she was going, and she was very nervous because she wanted to look good," Haney said. "We got her all dressed, and now she is very loyal to us. Customers become your friends. They stop by every two weeks to see what is new."

Kohler also said she's formed great friendships with the women who frequent her boutique, which features some house wares and increasing lines of clothing, including business wear, semi-formal dresses and a clearance section.

"I feel really lucky to meet all these cool women – these people are funky and cool," she said. "They're as much a part of the store as I am. They keep Zany alive."

Shop owners are gearing up for the busier season. Warmer weather coupled with the state of the economy is sure to keep shoppers returning to local re-sale shops, store owners said.

Business continues to grow steadily at Top Drawer Resale Clothier, which recently expanded to include a third location. Husband-and-wife business owners Sharon and Rick Carmean six years ago started with their men's, women's and children's clothing shop on East Eighth Street, adding a furniture consignment store across the road in August 2006.

"We are fortunate we have a great location," Sharon Carmean said. "We love this part of town. It's convenient for a lot of folks."

Most recently, the couple opened a clearance center, also across the street from the original store, which features furniture and appliances and, in the not-too-distant future, carpeting.

The clearance center is well stocked with appliances, particularly ovens, Sharon Carmean said. This is due to the many homeowners replacing high-quality, great-condition appliances like stoves with stainless steel pieces, she said.

"It's a nice way to get a high-end model," she said of customers seeking such items from her shop. She said the price range generally is $100-$300 for ovens.

Ramoie, who is always on the look-out for well-made, gently-used furniture, said she is particularly in need of bookshelves, nightstands and organizational cabinets. She prefers those items that are on the older side as they tend to be made better.

"If you go and compare at a furniture store and check out what they have on sale – if you really look at the quality and how it's made – you're just so much better in the long run to buy hand-me-downs or used stuff because it's made so much better." BN