Welcome to the Future of Thrifting: How New E-Comm Technology Is Changing the Way We Shop Secondhand

It's not just about buying and selling anymore.

In the early aughts, hawking your wares on the internet generally meant emailing back and forth with a faceless Craigslist stranger while holding out the innocent hope that they were not just three kids stacked in a trench coat. But that’s hardly the case for Depop’s 3 million+ registered users, who treat the popular fashion resale platform more like a social media hub than a marketplace for used goods.

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Think of it like eBay-meets-Instagram: sellers will gather followers, craft a profile, utilize hashtags, and DM back and forth with potential buyers. “We get about 140,000 new listings every day…and since 2020, the Depop community has made at least $1 billion annually,” says Peter Semple, the app’s Chief Brand Officer. “That’s because we understand that self-expression and fashion are synonymous with one another.”

As Semple sees it, allowing buyers and sellers to style their clothes, build profiles, and develop online personas adds a whole new layer of relevance to the thrift market. “Through digital platforms like Depop, consumers now have the capability and resources to connect globally on a peer-to-peer level, making thrifting — once thought of as a localized market — global.”

It’s no secret that the face of thrifting has changed in recent years. Just a decade ago, “the Salvation Army called and they want their clothes back” was still the sort of “joke” you might encounter in a mainstream rom-com. Thrifting was a skill — and often, it required work: A certain patience and a willingness to comb through racks of second-hand T-shirts in search of sartorial gold; an eye for imagining a well-worn garment in a new context. “My parents were big hippies, so I grew up thrifting and buying secondhand. We were part of a commune that traded goods — like, a dozen eggs for a pint of goat's milk from the neighbor’s goat,” says Liz Power, founder of vintage shopping chain Awoke. “Even when I first opened Awoke in 2012, people would come into the store and walk out as soon as they realized it was secondhand. Thankfully a lot has changed since then. I’m so grateful for the ways young people are embracing secondhand and thoughtful consumption much more than their generational counterparts.”

Resale is on the up & up…& up

According to a 2022 Resale Report conducted by thredUp — another popular digital marketplace for secondhand or pre-loved clothing — resale in the U.S. is expected to grow 16 times faster than the broader retail clothing sector by 2026. It’s even become a global phenomenon, expected to grow three times faster than the global apparel market, overall. “I've been in the thrift industry for a long time and have watched secondhand go from stigmatized to celebrated over the last decade,” says Erin Wallace, thredUp’s VP of Integrated Marketing. “But a lot has changed even since we got started. Consumer priorities and preferences have shifted and there’s a greater emphasis on sustainability and value. On top of that, there’s a whole younger generation that doesn’t associate a stigma with thrift at all. They’re leading the charge in embracing secondhand.”

An antidote to fast fashion

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Naturally, in a world where the mass overproduction of fast fashion gives way to a major waste problem, the sustainable benefits to popularizing secondhand retail are manifold. “The traditional fashion industry’s linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model perpetuates overproduction and has made fashion one of the most environmentally damaging sectors in the global economy,” says Wallace. “By reusing clothes, we make the most of the natural resources used to produce clothes, divert items from landfill, and give them a second, or even third or fourth, chance.”

But it would seem that the widespread impact is not merely driven by a desire to do right by the planet. Instead, in an increasingly digitized world, the thrift market has become a popular, thriving mode of self-expression in its own right. “The rise in app-based shopping is transforming the way we‘re thinking about ‘thrift’. With the ability to connect sellers and buyers from different cities, states, and countries, we’re bringing conversations around circularity and thrifting to a global platform and normalizing secondhand shopping,” says Semple. “More and more people are tapping into their own closets as a way to give products new life.

We’ve arrived: The future of e-commerce technology

And it’s not all about apps built specifically for resale. For shops that were founded strictly as brick-and-mortar, like Awoke Vintage, e-comm often means Instagram sales. “Every day we post 50+ items to our Instagram Stories — if people are interested we send them a PayPal invoice for the item and ship for free or offer in-store pick-up,” says Power. “And due to our e-commerce leg, not only are we selling to way more folks all across the country and internationally, but our buying team gets to see what sells in real time. We recently bought a bunch of leather chaps and I remember thinking, hmmm I wonder if this is a bit of a gamble, but we posted them to our Instagram Stories and had over 60 DMs about them in the first hour!” For vintage sellers like Power who vend across an Instagram page, a website, and an IRL venue, PayPal Checkout is helping to change the game by allowing for omni-channel sales — so multi-platform payments can be streamlined wherever customers prefer to shop.

“What's really great about recent e-comm technology is that it allows us to quickly, easily, and safely transfer funds to our international vendors,” adds Power. “About 20% of our vintage comes from international showrooms. In the past we've had to deal with slow bank transfers or withdraw cash. PayPal allows us to pay vendors easily and they receive instant notification that funds are on the way. And at the same time, it’s also how we send digital invoices to customers.” In short, PayPal is not only easier than ever to use for buyers, but for Power, as a vendor, it’s also minimizing financial stress and tedious book-keeping processes — which means she has more time to do things like interface with customers (or, say, her friends).

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This ethos applies on thredUp, too. While sites like Poshmark and Depop require sellers to oversee the pricing and packaging of their products, thredUp takes a different model: Users send their sellable clothing into a thredUp warehouse, where the platform’s team prices, vends, and packages it for resale — and recycles anything that doesn’t feel usable. “We’ve spent the last decade building the infrastructure to power resale at scale and change how the world shops,” says Wallace. “Not only have we built our core marketplace to connect buyers and sellers to shop secondhand, we’ve also scaled our Resale-as-a-Service (RaaS) offering that allows brands and retailers to plug into our operating platform and deliver resale experiences to their own customers. We’ve built an app experience that makes it even more convenient to buy and sell secondhand.” And they’ve got the numbers to prove it: The company’s recent report found that 70% of consumers say it’s easier to shop secondhand now than it was five years ago thanks to recent e-comm technology — and as a result, over half (53%) of consumers have purchased secondhand apparel in the last 12 months.

Thrifting is democratizing fashion

For buyers looking more pointedly towards luxury retail — think: household name, high-end designers — TheRealReal (often abbreviated as TRR) is a popular place to start. Like with thredUp, sellers on TRR will ship secondhand items to the company’s warehouse, where their team will handle verification and sales. “For sellers, we authenticate, photograph, price, and list every item — and we manage payments, shipping and returns through PayPal,” says Samantha McCandless, TRR’s SVP of Merchandising. “Thanks to our ever-updating shopping technology, we’ve revolutionized the way consumers engage with secondhand luxury. By leveraging our 11 years of data and advanced AI and machine learning, we’ve been able to operationalize our business and scale our presence to being the world's largest online marketplace for authenticated, resale luxury goods.”

For Melanie Masarin, the brains behind trendy non-alcoholic spirit, Ghia, TRR has made luxury commerce a newly viable option. ”Growing up in France, secondhand clothing was mainly either very high-end — designer or collection pieces — or very low-end,” she says. “But these days, I’d say I buy and sell 80% of my clothing on TheRealReal. When I go home to France, I love going to secondhand shops to scour through rows of Chanel but rarely end up buying anything. It’s more like going to the museum. TheRealReal is the only place that makes most of those products feel accessible.”

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We’re recalibrating our thrift shopping habits

It goes without saying that broader access is a huge contributing factor to the increased fondness for thrift shopping — but in addition to encouraging users to shop more, modern resale apps are also shaping the way we shop. “I end up thinking about specific pieces I want a lot more, rather than aimlessly shopping in a store for something that catches my eye,” says Simona Ruzer, Recruiting Coordinator at TikTok. “It gives me access to more curated clothes that would be much more difficult to find in a thrift store.”

“I used to go into resale apps blindly and just peruse random accounts or pages as if I were in an actual thrift shop,” says New York-based copywriter, Jess Deutsch. “But now I feel like I use apps more to look for very specific things. I have way too many clothes so I’m trying to be more intentional when I shop.”

When it comes to selling your clothes, the merit of most resale apps lies in the fact that sellers have maximal agency. You’re often responsible for styling, curating, pricing, and shipping our own garments — which can be as creative as it is commercially successful. According to Ruzer, major resale success requires social media skills. “As the influencers always say, ‘consistency is key’. I think if you're posting everyday on the app, using five hashtags and being super descriptive with each item, they're way more likely to sell,” she says. “Also, responding quickly to people if they ever DM you a question about a specific item.” 

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The good, the bad, & the lengthy wait-times

Of course, there are downsides to this particular variety of online shopping. Vendors are making less than they might if they were to sell their clothes via a stoop sale or their personal Instagram due to the marketplace selling fees. For buyers, purchasing from real people rather than an automated service or a major fashion house means that you’re hardly guaranteed the immediacy or efficiency that might come along with ordering online from some major big-box retailer. “It’s hard being at the mercy of the seller's shipping time on resale apps. Sometimes, you’ll have to wait weeks for something to arrive,” says Deutsch. But all in all, she feels that the conveniences of a digitized thrift mecca outweigh the frustrations — especially when e-comm apps allow for a far more seamless shopping experience than, say, Craigslist.

The fact that e-comm has thoroughly altered the thrifting landscape is not exactly news. But beyond expanding and simplifying an increasingly globalized market — and, of course, lessening the environmental impact of an increasingly dismal fashion market — e-comm tech is turning thrifting into a full-bleed social realm of its own. Now, it’s about more than accruing or doing away with goods. “At Depop, our mission is to build the world’s most diverse, progressive home of fashion by combining resale with elements of social interaction and exploration,” says Semple. “From our founding moment, we’ve always been much more than just a place to buy and sell: We’ve fostered a community of like-minded creatives, young entrepreneurs and sustainable enthusiasts who are transforming the fashion industry.” 

It’s not just about Depop, of course. On the whole, fashion — and thrifting in particular — has never been a more democratic, accessible space for creativity. In part, it’s the product of a shifting mindset around sustainability and personal expression — and in part, it’s spurred by the emergence of e-comm technology that makes it possible for sellers to meet buyers where they are.

Tagged:

Thrifting, Second Hand, E-Commerce, thrifting apps

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