Thrifting in the Digital World

Andie Smith
December 2, 2021

The only brick & mortar shopping experience that sometimes required gloves even before COVID-19 was thrift shopping. The subtle screeching of metal hangers moving along the rows of stained t shirts, the ominous smell of used clothes, and pulling on a pair of Levi’s over your own pants due to the lack of dressing rooms: all sensory signs of a trip to your local Goodwill. And while thrifting may be an experience best kept in-person for those who love to hunt for vintage, it has arrived in eCommerce, with variety and DTC flair. 

There are copious reasons to love and embrace the art of thrifting. It’s economically smart, sustainable, you can give back to your local community and charities, and you give a second life to someone’s old threads. Additionally, there is an emphasis on the art of it: there is nothing more rewarding than wearing a killer pair of jeans or a lovely plaid peacoat that you hunted for and found for a whopping $5. It shows dedication, style, and an abandonment of choosing the easy route. 

With the dawn of Internet platforms like eBay, CraigsList, and Facebook Marketplace, some would claim that thrifting and vintage hunting has always existed on a digital platform. It has made it easier for collectors or consumers of vintage clothing to access a wide range of sellers and buyers. The convenience of the Internet can connect people across the world from each other, and the same goes for a rare, coveted pair of shoes. 

Yet, vintage DTC stores have sprung up like sneaker-heads at a Thrift Con. Shopify boasts a large number of online thrift stores, run by people who hunt for the pieces themselves, and curate them on a one-stop shop platform. You can find anything from a DTC specializing in mid-century modern decor to Etsy stores selling up-cycled Levi’s. 

Whether consumers are shopping for secondhand pieces on established vendor platforms like eBay or Etsy, or going to curated Shopify stores, the thrill of thrift shopping is here to stay on the eCommerce platform, and it’s joining the fight against the Amazon’s and Forever 21s of the world. Secondhand shopping is sustainable for the planet, and Gen Z consumers are more likely to shop for vintage clothing. As we know, the formula for a successful DTC is appealing to consumer shopping behavior and upholding sustainable values, which all equals an overwhelming success for thrifting eCommerce. 

A Rich Brick & Mortar History

Arguably the most valued reason to shop secondhand is the low price. 

Brick & mortar thrifting typically happens in the GoodWills, Salvation Army’s, and Arc’s of the world. These organizations are usually non-profit, and provide jobs, job training, and other community-based programs for people who have barriers preventing them from otherwise obtaining a job. That’s why the clothes and secondhand items there are so cheap: the profit goes towards employing the workers, and gives back to charity. The organizations obtain their merchandise through donations only. 

So how did this system of secondhand sales move online? 

Back in the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution saw a mass production of clothes and goods in general. As goods and clothing became more accessible and were produced in higher quantities, they naturally became cheaper, and consumers were more likely to throw out the old to acquire the new. The stigma around “used clothing” connoted lower income families or stereotyped minorities in this time period. This brought about the rise of organizations like Salvation Army and Goodwill: they gave immigrants and the homeless an opportunity to work, become “Americanized” through access to clothing, and served as centers for social services. 

By the 1920s, second hand stores were spread around the country, and by the 1950s, consignment shops sprung up, tailored towards consumers looking for high-end items for a discounted price. A Time article on the history of thrifting claims that at this time, “wealthier consumers started coveting ‘vintage’ clothes,” and that since then, “The thrill of finding couture at a more affordable price has never waned.” 

The major shift was quite a cultural phenomenon of the early 20th century. During the Victorian era, clothes were counted as economic assets alongside things like property, silver, and furniture, and people looked down upon those who wore used clothes. When flea markets and recycled goods were popularized during Post-War movements around the world, “bohemians” adopted the reuse of clothes as a part of a counterculture movement. A Racked article deems this is when “used clothing assumed a gloss of glamour,” and thus, “vintage” was born. 

Old World Digi-Vintage

In the 1990s dawn of the Internet, the vintage hunt moved online. Notoriously a trailblazer in online platforms, eBay was launched in 1995 in San Jose, California, changing the game for people searching for coveted and rare items, and instantaneously connecting buyers and sellers all over the world. eBay is representative of the old-world way of thrifting online, alongside platforms like Craigslist and Etsy. 

eBay set the stage for secondhand DTC transactions. It was revolutionary in the way that it was a global auctioning platform, allowing users to bid on posted items, and moved the auction experience to a digital form. eBay implemented safe, transparent trading practices, also paving the way for mobile banking apps for stress-free online transactions.

Craigslist followed in a similar manner in the 90s, and by the turn of the century, Etsy launched in 2005 to specialize in the online sale of handmade and vintage goods.

These old world avenues to thrift shopping lacked niche, however. While eBay could sell a coveted fur coat or Nike sneaker, it eliminated the thrill of “discovery” for consumers that existed in traditional brick and mortar thrift stores, and users had to sift through thousands of search results to find what they were looking for. On the other hand, sellers had to compete with thousands of other sellers, and lacked the brand personality and authenticity of having a brick and mortar consignment shop. 

The new world of vintage shopping is happening now, and eBay has evolved into a variety of vintage eCommerce platforms to assist consumers in finding exactly what they are looking for. In addition, Shopify has enabled true vintage curators to establish their own DTC store to sell their secondhand wares. 

New World Digi-Vintage

There are many shopping apps out there now that help consumers find products, but only a handful specialize in secondhand selling and vintage items. 

Depop is a mobile-friendly, secondhand shopping app that allows sellers to create a custom digital shop and sell their used clothes. Launched in 2005, the app capitalizes on the Instagram-like feed, and the content has evolved to specialize in trendy seasonal items like cardigans and jackets for fall, and vintage swimwear or sneakers in the summer. Depop utilizes influencer marketing as well, maximizing on Instagram-famous influencer partnerships promoting their own Depop stores. The app makes it easy and convenient to search for the trendiest items in the vintage world, and their search functionality does not discriminate against a variety of body types, race, price points, and region. 

While Depop is oriented towards affordable vintage shopping in a Gen Z space, Grailed offers a platform for the high-end, menswear sphere of vintage. Quickly scaling the charts of thrift eCommerce stores, Grailed has become a source for the most coveted high-end pieces, price points, and what every rapper or music artist has been wearing. Collinear with the fashion era of streetwear, the platform serves as a form of counterculture Vogue, with consumers following their trends as closely as high end magazines. 

Despite early criticism in its startup days, the luxury DTC consignment marketplace, The RealReal, is thriving and circulating the artillery of secondhand luxury handbags out there. The RealReal brands itself through authenticity in the high end world: the consumers trust the group of experts to authenticate each luxury piece and resell it for a fair price. It’s a treasure trove of vintage or limited edition handbags, as well as an option to buy luxury high-end at a discounted price. 

Hey Siri, Can We Go Thrift Shopping?

As Macklemore claimed in his infamous 2012 song, “but sh*t, it was 99 cents!” 

Despite large platforms dedicated to secondhand shopping, there is an abundance of small DTC brands that curate a highly stylized collection of vintage items. While they may take the consumer experience out of thrift shopping, they provide the convenience of washing, tailoring, reworking, or randomizing the vintage products for their consumers. 

Frankie Collective is a fairly established online thrift store that racks up about 355k followers on Instagram. While they sell secondhand graphic tees, jackets, and hoodies, their speciality is reworking vintage items into logo’d apparel and accessories. After sourcing old or out-of-trend Nike, Adidas, or Ralph Lauren pieces, they rework them into mini-skirts, bikini tops, or two-piece matching sets. This Shopify DTC gives a second life to thrifted pieces. After all, there’s a reason brands like Nike, Adidas, and Polo are so popular and have decades of longevity: their quality and commitment to high-level branding makes them idols of modern streetwear fashion. Frankie Collective acts like a house flipping show on HGTV by breathing new style and ideation into age-old brands. The Tim Gunn of vintage DTC, so-to-speak. 

Some vintage DTC stores create a strong brand identity rooted in the history of vintage shopping, pop culture, and music, like the Miami-based eCom shop Tally Vintage. In this case, what you’re paying for is the expertise of experienced thrifters and fashion lovers, in addition to the one-of-a-kind pieces they source. Co-founders and siblings Ray and Josh Stein launched their online store this past summer, but the brand was founded in 2015 when Josh used to sell his thrifted goods to college friends in Tallahassee. Since then, the pair has grown their brand to a successful DTC shop. 

Ray and Josh attribute their vintage style to an androgynous look, which comes natural as they share clothes even if they are different genders and sizes.

“I love vintage and what we do because it’s very unisex. It’s one size fits all because it’s however you want it to look. It doesn’t matter what size you are.” 

Ray looks up to stylist Aleali May because “she mixes luxury with vintage garments. It’s an androgynous look, but also super sexy. I like dressing like a tomboy with baggy pants and tight tops.” 

Ray and Josh Stein of Tally Vintage

Good Fair is a prime example of a DTC thrift store that allows the consumer something similar to the experience of walking into a thrift store to dig through racks and bins themselves. They offer randomized bundles of vintage hoodies or tees to emulate the feeling of shopping at a thrift store, not knowing what you will walk out with that day. 

Influencer marketing is no stranger to DTC thrifting, either. Celebrity stylist and Los Angeles blogger Kristen Ritchie runs a vintage DTC called High End Hippie, where she sources trend-driven pieces and advertises via her aesthetically-pleasing Instagram feed. She may be a driving counter force against Los Angeles’s culture of glamour, disposable income and materials, as her frequent trips to the Melrose Trading Post in West Hollywood appeal to the trendier west coast native searching for secondhand. Vintage lovers like Ritchie are creating a digital culture secondhand, especially on places like Instagram that are key in building community. 

Vintage doesn’t stop at apparel: consumers have been fascinated by antique furniture and decor for decades as well. Currently, we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in mid-century modern decor, architecture, and interior design aesthetic. This 1960s era of design is known for it’s groovy, hippie-appealing colors with emphasis on clean lines, lack of embellishment, and attention to organic and streamlined forms for furniture design. Imagine Mad Men, Dazed and Confused, or even Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. 

Some DTC vintage shops have caught on to this consumer trend. For example, Denver-based shop Here in Heaven Vintage curates an entire mid-century modern secondhand store straight out of their Congress Park home. The owners… live in one unit of the home, rent out a beautifully decorated Airbnb in the upstairs unit, and use their front unit to showcase and sell their wares. Walking into the home feels like stepping back in time to a 70s disco mixed with a flowering garden. Decked out in delicate, pastel colored vases, groovy armoires and vintage armchairs, and a forest of well-tended potted greenery, Here in Heaven Vintage has accessed a niche-space of vintage decor that foundationalizes their brand identity. 

Mile High Co-op, another Denver-based vintage DTC, also runs their company straight through Instagram, alluding to the shopping-feature that is taking over the social networking app. Both of these brands were ahead of their time however, as Mile High Co-op sources and sells mid-century modern furniture on a day-to-day basis via their Instagram story. The act of thrifting is still high and prevalent with this transaction model: the consumer has to follow the brand closely to catch the best drops and finds! 

Co-founder Rhea Harless runs the 1-year-old Mile High Co-op out of her Denver apartment. The love of vintage shopping came from her time spent in New York City in the East Village while she attended FIT. A move to Denver presented an abundant opportunity for the young entrepreneur as she was able to drive all over the country to source furniture instead of just hauling clothes by foot in the city. 

Rhea notes, “Sometimes the secret is driving really far to find the gems. The road tripping has been really fun.”

Additionally, vintage shop curation has a lot to do with connection with the consumer base: “I’m really drawn to funky silhouettes. My customers live in small apartments, and decorating with shapes makes a small space so much more original.”

While her success on Instagram is growing, Harless is hesitant to jump to a Shopify store because of the community aspect that the social networking platform provides. Aside from the constant messaging with customers and sharing of moodboards, Harless says, “I love that my customers aren’t just buying from me, but they are out, sourcing their own pieces. I love getting DMs from my customers showing me what they found themselves. It’s great to have that constant connection with people.” 

As Instagram climbs to a top seat in social networking’s intersection with commerce, online thrift stores are an example of finding the platform-company fit. As Rhea says, “There’s no rules in this industry.”

Rebels With A Cause: Why You Should Shop SecondHand

We’ve covered the historical context of shopping secondhand and why and how it has moved to the digital space, but perhaps the most impactful act of thrift shopping is its implications with sustainability and waste in the fashion industry. 

Apart from modern living’s impact on the environment, and most of them well known –like buying one-use plastic, carbon emissions from flying and driving, and the recycling movement of the past century – one of the biggest detrimental effects to our planet is the fashion industry and supply chain.

Business Insider breaks down the most recent statistics: clothing production has doubled since 2000, 85% of textiles go into landfills every year, and the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped every second. The numbers are staggering, and the root of this problem is in our consumer culture. Large clothing and apparel companies produce in large quantities, more than they can ever sell, and consumers go through new clothes and entire wardrobes every year. 

Fast-fashion may be a Google buzzword, but its label masks the true villain in this environmental disaster: it refers to the mass production of cheap, trendy clothing that borrows from catwalks and sells at incredibly low prices. Major chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara, and even Urban Outfitters release dozens of collections every year, meaning those masses of clothes are recycled through their stocks and oftentimes dumped, and furthermore, encouraging consumers to dump last season's jeans for this season.  

This is where secondhand shopping provides a solution and acts as an appealing superhero. Vintage items have a shelf-life, they hold history and demonstrate their potential of reuse. The very transaction of buying secondhand is the most sustainable way to shop, and is a very intentional and deliberate way to fight against the detriments of fast fashion. Of course, it’s impractical to imagine that every consumer can or will commit to shopping secondhand. However, as the saying goes with any environmental act, every purchase counts. DTC thrift shops and platforms offer a solution for consumers looking to better their environmental impact, and consumers buying from DTC thrift stores help support small businesses. The best part of all: you get to rep a one-of-a-kind, stylish piece of clothing for years. 

Consumers Want Vintage 

Vintage has historical appeal, but Gen Z consumers are turning their attention to secondhand as well. According to a Piper Sandler’s survey posted on Linkedin, teen spending has declined 9% in the past year, showing a significant shift in the spending habits of consumers across generations.  

Whether the consumer is buying secondhand at a brick and mortar Goodwill, or selecting a curated vintage piece from a DTC, the search for an item adds value behind owning a piece of apparel or product. It’s age and weathering holds history within each thread. Additionally, the act of wearing has the effect of red carpet fashion. Repping a one-of-a-kind AC/DC band tee from the late 70s stands out as opposed to a mass-produced one sold at Urban Outfitters. There is no better feeling than spying a pair of vintage boots in the Salvation Army, that magically happen to be your size. The consumer experience is heavenly: it feels like the piece was made for you specifically.

Taking a look at fashion consumer trends: streetwear is thriving in the fashion world as well as on DTC shops. Weathered and distressed graphic tees are styled with Jimmy Choo heels, off-duty model looks usually feature a pair of vintage Jordan Nike sneakers, and secondhand clothing fits the formula for a highly-styled, streetwear look.

People should treat their clothes more like treasured heirloom pieces: a passed down band tee from your father is not only worth a lot of money, it’s a coveted, limited edition item that holds a piece of history within its thread-bare graphic. 

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