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Secondhand clothing sales are growing during the pandemic

Marielle Segarra Jul 1, 2020
Heard on:
Used items fill three-level racks in a thredUP distribution center. From here, items are packed and shipped to customers. Courtesy thredUP

Secondhand clothing sales are growing during the pandemic

Marielle Segarra Jul 1, 2020
Heard on:
Used items fill three-level racks in a thredUP distribution center. From here, items are packed and shipped to customers. Courtesy thredUP

During a recession, there are always some bright spots in the economy. One of them is resale clothing. While the broader retail sector is shrinking, sales of secondhand merchandise from online resale platforms like Poshmark, Depop, and thredUP are growing.

In early March, before the lockdowns, Marketplace’s Marielle Segarra visited one of thredUP’s distribution centers in Phoenix to get a peek behind the curtain.

ThredUP is an online thrift store. It sells mass-market brands, as well as designer items, for women and children.

Here’s how it works: If you want to clean out your closet, the company will send you a postage-paid mailer that fits a hamper’s worth of clothes.

You fill it up, send it back and thredUP resells your clothes, sharing anywhere between 5% and 80% of the selling price.

The company has developed an elaborate system to track the clothes from when they arrive to when they head out the door.

It starts at the merchandising stations, where workers tear open the bags, inspect each item and decide whether to accept or reject it. They also enter data about it into a computer and assign it to a clothes hanger with a unique bar code, so it can be tracked anywhere in the warehouse.

The rejected items get recycled or sold in bulk to thrift stores. 

The chosen items get carted over to the next station, where they’re placed on mannequins, positioned in front of a wall and photographed for the website. 

“A typical retailer takes an item and takes one picture of it and sells 10,000 of them,” said Anthony Marino, thredUP’s president. “We have to take a picture of every single item that we sell. They’re all unique, precious little snowflakes.”

After the photos, the clothes are put back on their hangers and shuttled on a conveyer overhead into a series of racks, three stories high and several football fields wide. They hold millions of garments. In between, there are metal walkways, accessible by stairs.

Soon it’ll be time to fulfill some orders. This happens in waves, several times a day. The racks rotate, bringing a piece of clothing that someone has purchased to the end.

Workers stand on the walkway, with devices strapped to their forearms that tell them what they’re looking for — say, a pair of denim shorts from Banana Republic, size 8 — and which rack it’s on.

Then the worker hangs the item on a conveyer that will carry it to the other side of the warehouse, where it gets rolled up in tissue paper, packaged and shipped.

Since I visited thredUP, the whole world has changed. The company decided to keep its distribution centers open through the pandemic. It offered furloughs, with benefits, to employees who weren’t comfortable working, but it’s ended those now. It says most workers have come back.

Some major retailers boosted pay during the pandemic. At thredUP, wages have stayed the same.

At the distribution centers, employees’ temperatures are taken before every shift. They wear masks. There are markers on the floor, so everyone stays 6 feet apart. Everything’s moving a little slower. 

Except that since the pandemic took hold, people are sending thredUP more bags of clothing — 60% more.

“There are a lot of people who are home, they’re looking for space in their house. They are seeing more than ever that they have clothing that they don’t need or don’t wear, and they’re sending it to us,” Marino said.

Also, from mid-March to the end of May, as retail sales plummeted, thredUP’s sales jumped by 20%. Maybe because a lot of brick-and-mortar thrift stores are closed — or because during a recession, people look for bargains.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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