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Christmas ’95: Secondhand Goods Make First-Rate Gifts, Or So More Christmas Shoppers Believe

December 19, 1995

For Christmas, Linda Petersell is giving her mother-in-law two jogging outfits, a swimsuit and a pantsuit _ all secondhand. ``She knows they’re used,″ says Ms. Petersell, a Dallas interior designer, ``and she loves the fact that most of it looks new.″

Used merchandise is coming out of the closet. For several years, resale stores, or for-profit stores that buy goods from individuals, often on consignment, have been attracting more and wealthier customers. Now, in what may be the ultimate sign of consumer acceptance, people are doing their holiday shopping at resale stores _ without apology.

``There’s nothing wrong with giving used things to friends and family,″ says Matt Britton, a Dallas engineer who recently made his first secondhand purchase: He bought his wife a stair-climbing machine for $75, about half the price of a new one.

As a result, resale shops may fare better than many traditional stores this Christmas, in a sharp reversal from past years. ``December used to be our worst month,″ says Thomas Ellison, chief executive officer of TVI Inc., a 100-unit chain of stores that sell used clothing and housewares. Last year, the chain had a profitable holiday shopping season for the first time in its 41-year history, and Mr. Ellison expects this year to be even merrier.

Meanwhile, resale stores are beginning to imitate other retailers’ efforts to attract holiday shoppers. This year, Patti’s ReSale House in Owensboro, Ky., for the first time is running holiday infomercials on local cable television in expectation of strong Christmas business. Owner Patti Acquisto says her holiday-season sales have been rising 10 percent a year for the past few years. One More Time, a secondhand store in Columbus, Ohio, is starting to provide Christmas gift wrapping.

Pawnshops, too, report growing holiday sales, especially of electronics and jewelry. At First Cash Inc., a 43-store pawnshop chain based in Fort Worth, Texas, sales at stores open at least a year for the first 10 days of December were up about 10 percent from a year earlier, says Rick Wessel, chief financial officer. Last year, First Cash’s December same-store sales jumped 10 percent over 1993. In contrast with resale shops, pawnshops generally give sellers cash on the spot.

Even before the holiday season, resale was growing. Monthly same-store sales at TVI grew 10 percent from year-earlier periods during the first 11 months of 1995, TVI says. And Minneapolis-based Grow Biz International Inc., whose franchises buy and sell used clothing, sporting goods and musical instruments, says same-store sales at franchises have risen 20 percent every year since 1992. It’s little wonder that new companies are entering the field: Membership in the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops has jumped 20 percent a year since 1993 to more than 1,000 store operators.

The main selling point for used goods, of course, is price, which generally runs 30 percent to 50 percent below regular retail. At Play It Again Sports, one of Grow Biz’s franchise chains, hockey skates range from $30 to $50, compared with $55 to $300 new. Vinyl-covered dumbbells sell for $1.50 to $6, down from $2 to $10 new.

Such discounts are crucial for many customers. David Karcher, a building contractor, last Christmas bought his 12-year-old son a $10 used soccer ball that he ``wouldn’t have been able to afford new,″ he says. New soccer balls cost $30 on average.

But thrift has also become chic among some who can afford to buy new. ``I brag about going to secondhand stores,″ says Joyce Richards, as she browses at Clothes Circuit, a Dallas resale shop where a wool J.H. Collectibles jacket sells for $45. Ms. Richards, who owns a janitorial business, says she likes a good bargain, boasting that she paid only $7 for the embroidered holiday sweater she is wearing.

``In recent years it’s become socially acceptable and very in to buy used,″ says Ms. Acquisto of Patti’s ReSale.

Such upscale customers are not only watching their pennies but making concerns like the environment part of their buying habits. ``Buying and selling used stuff like this is a good form of recycling,″ says Robert Thiner, an official of Grow Biz.

To combat the traditional image of resale stores as dingy shops peddling worn merchandise, TVI next year plans to remodel all its stores, called Savers and Value Village, and run television commercials featuring interior shots. With pickier customers, the industry is getting better at buying. One More Time, for instance, says it accepts only 30 percent of items brought in, down from 90 percent about 20 years ago, says owner Kate Holmes.

Of course secondhand merchandise has its shortcomings. There’s no telling what will be in stock, since resale stores buy whatever customers bring in. Used items are, well, used and store policies typically prohibit returns.

Moreover, a secondhand gift may offend some recipients. ``The whole idea of gift giving is to flatter the receiver,″ says Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist known as Miss Manners. With used goods, she says, ``you need to avoid the concept that you’re simply cleaning out your closet.″

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