Friday, September 3, 2021

The Gentrification of Thrift Stores

Vox has a long article up on an issue I know has been keeping all of you up at night, the weird economics of second-hand clothes. What is happening is this: once upon a time, most second-hand clothes were either sold at yard sales or donated to charities like Goodwill. The prices were uniformly low, and the people selling them either didn't know which had "vintage" cachet or didn't have time to think about it. So some people very much enjoyed trolling thrift stores and yard sales, looking for bargains. Some were buying for themselves, but others were full- or part-time professionals who resold their gleanings at vintage stores or flea markets. It was fun and economically marginal.

Enter the Internet. Now people who find "vintage" bargains immediately put them up for sale on EBay or other sites, and everybody can see that they are getting a huge markup. This is big business; Etsy recent bought the vintage retail site Depop for $1.6 billion. But nobody really knows what is a good price for, say, a designer leather jacket in fair condition, because there aren't enough on the market for the price to stabilize. So various resellers charge wildly different prices; some of them rely on their photographic and layout skills to create Instagram or other sites that make their wares seem more desirable and thus prop up their prices. This has generated a lot of anger and many accusations of Neoliberalism and Gentrification.  Which mostly makes me roll my eyes; if you don't like the prices some trendy resellers are charging, don't buy.

But now word of these prices has filtered back to the people at Goodwill and similar entities, and in some markets – especially New York and Los Angeles – they are raising their prices. Some people say the average prices in New York area thrift stores have doubled in a few years. And that, it seems to me, is an issue, if it means poor people (or middle class families with a lot of kids) have to pay more for their clothes.

There is nothing to be done about this: it is simply the Internet in action. Used book sellers have already been tossed on the internet storm, and many of them sunk by it. Many stores only existed because information issues kept people from finding exactly what they want and comparing prices if they did. The free flow of information changes that.

I think in the long run it will sort out. The clothes people with money want will rise in price, but the rest will not, and poor people will not have to do without; after all most donated clothes never even make it to the rack, but are thrown away or shipped to Africa. It will be less fun to haunt thrift stores looking for bargains, but that just seems to be a price we have to pay for having the online world.

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