Second-hand clothing is a first-class niche

Bellingham is swamped with consignment stores, to the delight of the city’s thrifty shoppers

Second-hand clothing is hot in Bellingham, as evidenced by the number of thrift stores open in the city. Pictured above is Passion Fly’s Kristi Swanson; below is Little Bugs’ owner Michelle Toctocan.

Heidi Schiller
   Kristi Swanson, owner of Passion Fly Clothing Exchange, examines a model who has just tried on a black skirt and a sparkly black blouse. The model is scheduled to catwalk it down the runway at an upcoming fashion show Swanson helped sponsor.
   “Do you like?” the model asks.
   “Yeah, I’m liking. Did you try the belt cinched at the waist?” Swanson says.
   The model looks like a million bucks, but the clothes she’s wearing probably don’t cost more than $20 at Swanson’s used clothing store on James Street.
   As a kid, Swanson honed her talent for looking fabulous on the cheap out of necessity.
   “We were pretty poor when I was growing up so we shopped all the thrift stores. But I also liked brands, so I would scour the racks for brands like Guess and anything that was popular at the time,” she said. “I’ve always been budget conscious.”
   Swanson moved to Bellingham in 2003 from Boise and could not find a job. Some friends in Boise had owned used clothing stores and she decided to take a stab at opening one in Bellingham.
   “I went off a gut assumption that any town with a university is going to be swarming with college students on a budget who want to get rid of clothes and buy more,” she said.
   She researched other used and consignment stores in the area and felt there was a need for affordable, young and stylish attire.
   “I really wanted to go more hip, more trendy. To really appeal to more fashionable people,” she said. Her store’s slogan has since become: “Hot clothes for hot chicks.”
   Since she opened in 2003, Swanson said she’s seen three more used/consignment clothing stores open in Bellingham, and recently was surprised to notice another one pop up across the street from her.
   Bellingham seems to be a hot spot for used and consignment clothing. Directory Assistance online lists 11 such stores in Bellingham. By comparison, only five are listed in Spokane and only three in Olympia.
   It’s not as though this type of business is a sure thing; most owners will say it’s extremely hard work.
   But many will also say that business keeps getting better and better, mainly because their customers are eternally loyal.
   These customers often have lower incomes — but not always. Many of them are environmentally minded and believe in the mantra of reuse and recycle.
   Their unifying feature, however, is an eye for a good deal on a hot brand.
   Together, these attributes make Bellingham ripe for a thriving used/consignment clothing industry.

Trading cost for hard work
   Swanson said that while starting a used clothing store involves more legwork than starting a new retail store, there is much less cost.
   “Even though I had to run around like mad trying to gather up initial inventory for the store before opening — from yard sales, thrift stores, road trips — it doesn’t cost as much. If you’re opening a new store you have to contend with minimum order requirements — there’s a lot of money involved with that,” she said.
   Michelle Toctocan, owner of Little Bugs on Yew Street, can relate to that startup story. She got the idea to open the children’s consignment store after searching for used clothing for her three kids several years ago.
   “I was frustrated with the other consignment stores. I noticed they were very small and crowded and I was frustrated with the lack of inventory,” she said of the experience. “So I just decided to open my own.”
   It wasn’t quite that simple, however. Toctocan researched and brainstormed the idea for several years before actually opening the store, and then spent the first three years working nights full time at a casino, in addition to running the store, to stay afloat.
   “Literally, my paychecks (from the casino) would go to my employees,” she said. “This was not an overnight success.”
   In the beginning, Toctocan spent months hunting for clothes at garage sales to build up her inventory of brand-name children’s clothes, such as Gymboree, Gap, Old Navy and Hanna Andersson. She spread the word by sending out 1,200 fliers to middle-income women, and eventually the parents started to come.
   It took her about three years to start seeing consistent profits, she said. Now, in her fifth year, Toctocan puts out 300 to 500 items a day to replace ones that have sold, and she had to hire an after-hours clerk to manage all of the inventory. She estimates she has around 3,000 consigners/customers, and adds new ones every day.

An avid customer base
   Neither Passion Fly nor Little Bugs is located in retail clothing centers. Until the recent addition of The Clothes Rack, Passion Fly was surrounded by machinery and auto parts shops on James Street.
   Little Bugs on Yew Street is now flanked by Toctocan’s second store, a shop selling new children’s clothing called Little Bugs Boutique, which she moved there from Fairhaven in October. Otherwise, her neighbors include a pharmacy and a smattering of convenience stores and restaurants.
   Both thrive on the continuing gusto of their customers.
   On a dreary fall morning, Little Bugs swarms with moms as soon as it opens at 10 a.m. Some are shopping, some are visiting and gossiping in groups while their children play with toys scattered throughout the store.
   Toctocan, whose high-energy chattiness lends itself well to her clientele, flits between the mom clusters, taking in shipments of raincoats for her store next door and checking in with her employees.
   One of her employees, Monica Curtis, said the moms sometimes show up half an hour before opening time, and said the current eight customers buzzing around the store are actually less than normal.
   “This is nothing,” Curtis said.
   Toctocan said most of her customers/consigners are middle-income Fairhaven moms who could spend $60 on a brand name shirt for their kids, but would rather buy the used version for $15.
   Most of the women that shop at her store buy a few expensive pieces for their kids, and then supplement the rest of the wardrobe with used clothing, a prudent move for wearers who change sizes every few months.
   Toctocan said Bellingham can accommodate so many used/consignment clothing stores because customers here are more environmentally aware, and like the idea of recycling and reusing clothes, in addition to getting a thrill out of a good deal.
   “People brag about buying stuff on consignment,” she said.
   Rian Greer, who opened Re-Threads — an all-men’s used clothing store on Cornwall Avenue — agreed with Toctocan. Bellingham’s mix of liberal, low-income students and environmentally minded citizenry creates a customer base that is uncomfortable spending tons of money on new clothes.
   “Prices out there are insane,” he said of new clothes at the mall. “Most Bellingham residents are middle class. Besides, if you get a good deal on clothes, you’ve got more beer money.”
   Swanson agreed with both points and said her business philosophy is somewhat shaped by an EPA study she read that found 4.5 percent of landfills are made up of textiles.
   “To be able to wear and sell recycled clothes, you’re not only looking good but you can feel good because you know you’re doing something good for the earth,” she said.
   Swanson said most of her customers are junior high, high school and college students who like the fact they can get stylish, inexpensive clothes that are also unique because they’re not hanging on a rack with 10 other pieces just like them. They also like the entrepreneurial aspect of selling their own clothes to exchange for “new” ones.
   The owners of The Clothes Rack — a recently opened consignment store near Passion Fly — Joanne Robinson and Cindy Brown, felt there was a niche for high-end used women’s wear. Robinson said she knows women who “make the rounds” weekly to all the local used/consignment stores, and that type of customer loyalty, or obsession with a good deal, is not going away any time soon.
   “There are treasures to be found,” she said



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