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Used Clothing Offers Fresh Hope For 2 Struggling Department Stores


Used clothing - it's the fresh hope for two struggling department stores. Within a day of each other, Macy's and J.C. Penney said they have a new idea to draw new shoppers, and that is by selling not-so-new clothes and accessories, both partnering with a big online consignment store called ThredUp. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: A few years back, James Reinhart was getting dressed one morning.

JAMES REINHART: And I opened my closet to a closet full of clothes that I wasn't going to wear.

SELYUKH: He used to be a teacher but was now in business school.

REINHART: And at the time, I was a poor student.

SELYUKH: So he took his clothes to the local consignment store.

REINHART: And they wouldn't take any of my clothing.

SELYUKH: He says they only wanted upscale brands.

REINHART: And so the business got started with me trying to figure out how to make some money on my old clothing.

SELYUKH: And now Reinhart's company, called ThredUp, promotes itself as the world's largest online consignment site. And this week ThredUp hit the news twice. In their latest gasp for fresh ideas, first Macy's and then J.C. Penney both made the same choice - a deal with ThredUp to start selling secondhand clothes. Here's Marie Driscoll from Coresight Research.

MARIE DRISCOLL: Right now 18-to-34-year-olds are really not shopping in department stores that much. So this is a way to get them in there.

SELYUKH: Buying secondhand has become a normal way of shopping ever since the Great Recession. At first, it might have been purely a financial calculation, a way to dig up luxury brands like Chanel at a fraction of a price. But then, the explosion of online shopping suddenly put all these great finds from places like New York and Los Angeles just a click away from any thrifter anywhere.

People started reselling things on sites like Poshmark, Depop and The RealReal, which actually went public just in June. Like Spotify to music and Airbnb to hotels, so-called re-commerce fits neatly into the world view of new-generation shoppers.

OLIVER CHEN: People are looking for ways to lead simple lives and get rid of stuff, and it can be someone else's treasure.

SELYUKH: Oliver Chen is a retail analyst at Cowen and Company.

CHEN: And then, as you think about the Instagram generation, the newness is really important when you photograph yourself, when you socialize, in having a certain degree of distinction.

SELYUKH: And if you talk to shoppers in their late teens, 20s, early 30s, they will tell you that distinction is exactly what's been missing from these struggling department store chains. I asked 22-year-old Mackenzie Campbell from Massachusetts when was the last time she visited a Macy's or a J.C. Penney.

MACKENZIE CAMPBELL: I haven't been in a few years, to be honest (laughter). There's a Macy's in the Cape Cod Mall, but I usually just use it to cut through to get to the other stores.

SELYUKH: Where she does shop regularly are thrift stores.

CAMPBELL: I'm actually wearing a pair of, like, $3 jeans that I got at Salvation Army today.

SELYUKH: Campbell says she got into thrifting after following an Instagram influencer who put together cute looks with secondhand finds. And so to Campbell, the appeal is that feeling of a treasure hunt when she's looking for unique vintage items.

CAMPBELL: I look for things that, like, look like they've been loved, you know what I mean? Like, they had a past life with someone.

SELYUKH: There's actually a term for that in the industry.


SELYUKH: That's how Alex Fitzgerald put it. She's with the consulting firm A.T. Kearney. And she says another draw of the resale business is environmental. As a buyer, you feel like you're giving clothes another life, and as a reseller...

FITZGERALD: You feel less bad about getting rid of something, especially if you paid, you know, a substantial price for it.

SELYUKH: ThredUp's CEO, Reinhart, says that is part of his company's mission, and he says their goals for Macy's and J.C. Penney are not just to draw traditional thrifters to the department stores but also to entice more shoppers to start buying secondhand.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAYDA G'S "SOUND OF FUCA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.