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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 9, 2003

Local consignment stores thriving

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Since the Consignment Corner opened on Wai'alae Avenue six years ago, business has grown about 20 percent annually, says owner Rose Lee.

Sales associate Laura Thomas, left, talks to Jill Honda as she tries on a mink coat at The Ultimate You at Ward Centre. The $10,000 coat is on sale for $4,400.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

At T.L.C. Consignment Boutique in Kapa'a, Kaua'i, things are so busy that manager Brenda Vidinha says she opens a new account every day for people bringing in consignment. "Our appointments for new accounts are now being booked for April," she said.

Candice Jacquote, owner of The Rainbow Attic in Kihei, Maui, said she ran an ad last year bragging that she paid more than $10,000 a month to people who brought items in. She's now paying more than $20,000 a month.

Business is booming at Hawai'i's consignment stores.

Amid a prevailing value-driven retail climate nationwide and uncertain economic times, Hawai'i's consignment shops, like their Mainland counterparts, have seen shopping at secondhand stores grow from the domain of an eccentric minority into a mainstream activity, with sales doubling over the past few years.

There are 50 used merchandise stores in Hawai'i; the Census Bureau put sales totals at $20 million in 1997, the most recent tabulation. Consignment shops make up nearly half of that category, with 24 listed in the Yellow Pages statewide. Ten years ago there were eight.

"(Consignment) is about sharing, recycling, saving money," said Kelsey Sears, the grande dame of consignment stores in Hawai'i. "If you have an adventuresome spirit it is fun. Everybody likes to save money and the more we get into this (economic) experience we are going through, the more everybody wants to hunker down and save money."

Want to clean out your closet?

Generally, consignment stores carry either current fashion or vintage clothing, five years and older. Most require that clothes be new or almost new and they must be clean or dry cleaned, ironed and on hangers when they are brought in.

Most shops split profits 50-50 between the consignor and the shop. You'll need to ask about specific arrangements.

Clothes are generally kept 60 to 90 days before they are either moved to a sales rack or returned to the consignor. When the consignor doesn't want the clothes back, they are usually given to a charity group.

Most stores require an appointment to bring in items, so call first.

Even a looming war with Iraq has not dampened growth for an industry that thrived during a down retail climate in Hawai'i the past few years with the Asian financial crises of 1997 and 1998 cutting into tourism dollars, followed by the U.S. economic slowdown of mid-2001 when dot-com companies began folding. And Sept. 11.

"With the possible war, we don't know how things will turn out, but we survived 9/11," said Lee, of the Consignment Corner.

Susan Sanger, co-owner of Pzazz consignment store, said business is up 30 percent over last year. Pzazz, also on Wai'alae Avenue, is a large, well-lit shop carrying everything from Gap to Chanel.

"As things get harder with all the craziness in the world, the economy will get hit again," Sanger said. "All those people come to us."

Consignment shops typically offer everything from dramatically discounted designer clothing and accessories to low-cost home furnishings and gift items. You could pay thousands of dollars for a Chanel suit, Ferragamo shoes or a Gucci bag at an upscale store. The same item could be a fraction of that price in a consignment shop.

Vidinha said an item that costs $1,000 or more new will sell for about $100 in her T.L.C. shop. The store, in a historic plantation home, has a circle of about 1,800 people who turn in items for sale.

Consignment stores build their inventories from customers who bring items, cleaned, pressed and on hangers and ready to be sold. The items are owned by the consignor until sold and generally sell for less than half their original price. Almost every consignment store in Hawai'i is so busy that an appointment is necessary to bring in clothing.

Consignment shops work to differentiate themselves from musty, cluttered thrift and charity stores, with bright, clean showrooms and products displayed on mannequins and in store windows rather than jammed onto crowded racks as in a secondhand store.

And thrift shop inventories are gathered from donated clothes, with less scrutiny given to their condition or cleanliness.

Sears opened her The Ultimate You store more than 20 years ago and claims to have been the first consignment shop on O'ahu.

Rose Lee, left, of the Consignment Corner, talks with some of her regular customers. Lee opened the Consignment Corner six years ago; since then, she said, business has grown about 20 percent annually.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

She says the only way for a customer at her Ward Centre shop to distinguish her inventory of Chanel, St. John and Louis Vuitton clothes, bags and accessories from the brand name stores is the price.

"We don't use the word thrift. Even resale," Sears said. "Many people bring us brand new, never worn things. Sometimes they are compulsive shoppers or have gift items they didn't care for, so they bring them in."

Sears said others may have had a weight change, a medical situation or simply want a new style. Her customers come from all over and from all walks of life, she said.

According to Census Bureau figures, Americans spent about $12 billion at secondhand stores in 1997, an increase of about 30 percent from the previously compiled totals of 1992. The bureau, which calculates retail spending every five years, will release a new report in about a year with 2002 totals, and it is expected to show a continued upward spending trend on used merchandise.

Adele Mayer, executive director of the Michigan-based National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops, said the Census Bureau does not separate consignment stores from other secondhand shops, making it impossible to accurately judge growth and sales totals.

But, Mayer said, there are an estimated 15,000 consignment stores nationwide and if a business starts with a good plan, it will likely succeed. "This has always been a recession-proof business," she said. "Most of our members seem to be doing very well."

In fact, tough economic times are made to order for consignment stores. People search a little harder for bargains and can really use the extra cash generated from selling their lightly used clothing.

"Everybody has some mistakes in their closet," said Audrey Farias, owner of Consignment Manoa. "The sales lady said it looks good on you and it doesn't. As the economy gets worse, people that would never consider selling their clothes before do now."

Farias counts lawmakers, business professionals and students among her clients.

Melissa Raymond works in a beauty parlor and needs to look fashionable. She stops by her favorite consignment stores nearly every week.

"Half the time the clothes are never even worn — name brands that I would never be able to afford," Raymond said. "I have a mindset now. Once I started buying consignment, I can't go back to paying retail in a department store."

Vidinha said with how busy all the consignment shops are, the future looks good. "I think it is just going to keep growing," she said. "It is a great business to be in and one of the best parts is I get the first choice of clothes."