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Thrift Stores Thrive by Selling the Experience

thrift-store-11070602 Credit: Dreamstime.com

Despite the competition posed by the growth of online bargain websites, thrift stores continue to flourish, new research shows.

The secondhand stores thrive while competing with eBay and other similar sites because their shoppers are looking for more than just a good deal, the research revealed.

While eBay and thrift, consignment and vintage store shoppers are both searching for inexpensive and unusual goods, patrons of secondhand stores want an authentic shopping experience in a neighborhood setting with engaged proprietors.

"The social and material experience can't be recaptured when one is alone at home, slouched over the computer, trying to discern the quality of a garment on eBay," said Brenda Parker, one of the study's co-authors at the University of Chicago. "And 'I got it on eBay' does not evoke the same air of mystery and treasure hunt as scoring a find in an obscure junk shop in Chicago."

The study found that while the threat of ecommerce is real, particularly in terms of convenience and potentially lower prices, the number of secondhand stores has grown in recent years.

 "Thrift stores, vintage boutiques and flea markets are often small, locally owned and idiosyncratic," Parker said. "They add to the unique, vibrant quality of neighborhood retail corridors.

The researchers discovered that despite the rise in both online and brick-and-mortar thrift shopping the firsthand retail market has been hurt, as similar sales growth was found for new and used merchandise over the past decade.

Weber said the popularity of secondhand shopping may even boost firsthand retail, thus undermining some of the positive social and ecological benefits of thrift shopping.

"Secondhand stores and eBay offer perverse incentives for primary consumption," she said. "They may encourage consumers to buy more, knowing they can dispose of merchandise respectably and even for a profit."

Researchers gathered study data by surveying and interviewing retailers from nearly 200 Chicago-area thrift stores, recording their own observations while shopping at stores and online, attending a conference for eBay sellers and reviewing recent academic literature on retail. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the academic journal Urban Geography.

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.