The 'Closet-Sharing' Economy: Like Thrift Shopping Without the Effort

Consignment shops? Too far away. eBay? Such a hassle. New sharing-economy sites let you buy, sell, and trade secondhand clothes.

As we pine for the warmer days of spring, we begin to resent the sweaters, coats, and boots that have crowded our closets all winter long. But you don't need to spend a fortune to refresh your wardrobe, thanks to clothing-resale sites. Such marketplaces represent the sharing economy's latest attempt at upsetting the established order.

The practice of buying, selling, reselling, and swapping clothes has been around for thousands of years--probably ever since human beings decided to cover their shame--but in recent years it has become a bit more sophisticated. First there were online clothing swaps, then Craigslist clothing sales and eBay auctions, and now sophisticated resale sites and apps that make me wonder how people dressed themselves in the pre-21st-century dark ages.

eBay can be a lot of hassle, and resale and consignment shops give you a paltry amount for your well-loved items. Retail-based sharing-economy companies have popped up (and promptly flamed out) over the past few years, but none have burst through to the mainstream. Which site will become the breakout star, the Uber or Airbnb of clothes sharing, swapping, and selling? A few services seem poised for prime time.

Buy, sell, trade

Used merchandise is big business in the United States, with 18,000 stores selling $13 billion worth of stuff each year. But those numbers count only physical shops, not websites and apps, which aren't exactly clamoring to disclose their active-user totals or their revenue numbers. One resale app, Poshmark, this week said that it has millions of users who sold more than 1.5 million items last year.

Poshmark aims to be equal parts ladies-only social network and e-commerce company, a style-centric version of Pinterest that lets you buy and sell clothes without ever leaving the site. It even has elements of Instagram: You can slap a filter on the photo of your shoes, for instance, to make it more enticing to prospective buyers, and you can "heart" or comment on photos you like.

If you just want to sell old stuff to make way for new items, competing resale site Threadflip eliminates all of the work--you send your item to the company (with a prepaid shipping label), and it photographs, lists, and sells your stuff as part of its currently free White Glove Service. Tradesy is another favorite, with a range of high-fashion and low-end items, and it looks more like a regular retailer than other resale sites do. Plus, Tradesy has a dedicated wedding section for bargain-hunting brides.

You pay a price for convenience, however. Threadflip takes 40 percent of each sale, Poshmark takes 20 percent, and Tradesy takes 9 percent. Threadflip takes an especially large cut because it does so much of the work for you.

The companies have to make money to stay in business, of course, but some users have turned reselling clothes online into a career.

"You'll find women who use the app just to shop for great deals on clothes, women who use the app to sell unwanted items in the back of their closets, women who are looking for new streams of revenue to pay bills or tuition, or create revolving closets--selling items they are over to make room and income to buy new ones," Poshmark CEO Manish Chandra told TechHive. "Some women have even become full-on closet entrepreneurs and use the platform to start their own self-sustaining businesses, earning up to six figures a year."

Those women must be reselling Louboutins on a regular basis to rake in such a large income, but anything's possible.

An old-fashioned exchange

The sharing economy typically encompasses platforms that allow users and providers to buy and sell goods and services--not really true, old-fashioned sharing. But Jared Krause decided to get back to basics with TradeYa, a bartering site that launched around the time of the CES trade show earlier this month. Yes, bartering.

Krause worked with social scientists to figure out if online bartering would work. So far, so good. Users post items they want to get rid of, and if you want what they have, you can click the item's "want" button. The person who posted receives a notification about your interest, and then browses your discarded items to see if you have anything desirable. That person can then propose a trade. This arrangement sounds like it could go very badly, but Krause says people usually play fair when they barter.

"People don't end up offering stuff that is disparate in value," Krause told TechHive. "We were worried people were going to post broken VCRs. We had almost none of that. Everybody knows that nobody wants their broken VCR. If you post your broken VCR, you're not going to get a trade for it."

Electronics are hugely popular on the site, but the second biggest category is--you guessed it--women's fashion.

TradeYa isn't the only clothing-swap site around. While TradeYa's approach is pretty hands-off, Swapdom plays referee by setting up multiple-person swaps. You tell the site what you want and what you have to offer, and the site finds other users to get in on the action so that everyone gets a fair deal.

Bib + Tuck is more of a high-end fashion-bartering site, though currency is involved--sort of. You list your item and set the number of Bib + Tuck bucks you're willing to accept. You rack up bucks by listing your own stuff, so bucks are like digital dollars that users pass around the site--and you can't cash them out.

Fashion is well on its way to becoming the next sharing phenomenon. After all, anyone with a sibling can tell you there's nothing better than raiding someone else's closet. (Apologies to my own sister.)

This story, "The 'Closet-Sharing' Economy: Like Thrift Shopping Without the Effort" was originally published by IDG News Service .

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