︎︎︎episode 78

Secondhand News (the recurring and always controversial trend of secondhand fashion) - Part 3:  The 2000s

April 11th, 2023

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Welcome to episode 78 here at The Department. We’ve been on a long and educational journey through the past 100 years of secondhand shopping, following the pattern of secondhand shopping as a recurring fashion, retail, and social trend. Yes, people have been buying, selling, sharing, and trading secondhand items forever, but for our purposes, we are focusing on it as a larger mainstream trend.  As we said in the last episode, if you were into secondhand “before it was cool,” I’m assuming you are about 100 years old (give or take) and I would love to have you as a guest on the show to tell us how great thrifting was back then. For everyone else, please go back and listen to the previous episodes because we will be referencing them a lot today! 

And btw…I have a surprise for all of you! I originally thought this was going to to be a two-parter, then a three-parter, and now I’m realizing it’s going to be a four-parter! There’s just too much to talk about! And last week’s episode should have been two episodes in itself.  In this episode, now part 3 of FOUR, we will be focusing on the 00s, the decade that began on 1/1/2000 and ended on 12/31/2009.  Speaking of 1/1/2000…Kim did you have any anxiety around the “Y2K bug?”

The 00s certainly began with a lot of anxiety (economic, social, the potential end of civilization as we know it) and kinda continued to be an anxious time that also produced a lot of really great music, film, and books. We obviously have a lot to discuss here, so before we get into that, Kim has her weekly spiel!

I’m just going to go ahead and say what I’ve been thinking for quite a while: the 00s were the most socially transformative decade of my lifetime (so far).  And the key driver of that transformation was technology, particularly the internet (aka the world wide web), cell phones (OMG seriously how did we live before), phones that TOOK PHOTOS, texting, social media, email as a regular form of correspondence…this changed how people communicated, met one another, lived their day-to-day lives…and, how they bought and sold secondhand items.  In fact, people made whole ass businesses–some so huge that I have worked for TWO of them–that began by selling secondhand clothing online.  We’ll get to that in a bit…

I wanted to get started by getting a feel for the economic situation in this decade because that always has an impact on what we’re buying, where we’re buying it, and what we are (or are not) donating. TBH as I was refreshing my memory of all of this stuff, I got really sad because millennials have really been through it!  We joined the workforce as boomers were kinda in their prime of shitty abusive behavior in the workplace.  And at the same time, we were dealing with a lot of economic factors that made it hard to feel safe and stable.
  • In 2000 the tech bubble popped, with $6.2 trillion dollars of financial wealth vanishing into thin air. This was larger than the stock market crash that set off The Great Depression.
  • “The recession that followed the 2000 crash wasn’t particularly severe. But it was long — a “jobless recovery.” And during the entire Bush administration, real median household income never came back to its peak in the late 1990s.” This idea of a “jobless recovery” means that while productivity and retail sales rebounded, people didn’t get better jobs or even more jobs. Unemployment did not improve.
  • And then we have the big daddy of them all, The Great Recession.  The average household wealth was cut in half. Wages decreased. Unemployment soared to 10%.  The US GDP fell by 3.9%
  • The housing bubble burst, with another $6 trillion of financial wealth vanishing.  There was a crisis of foreclosures, people losing their homes at a rapid rate.
  • At the same time, prices increased.  A dwindling supply of crude oil pushed gas prices from around $1/gal at the beginning of 00s to almost $4 by the end of the decade.
  • Economists broadly agree that while the 00s weren’t as bad as The Great Depression, they were much worse than the 1970s
  • We also see the developing student loan crisis picking up steam. As the eldest millennials began to graduate from college, receive their first statement from Fannie Mae, and scream “OMG I am so fucked” into the void.
  • Jobs were especially hard to find for young adults!

So knowing that everything sucked in the 00s, it’s no surprise that people had less money to spend, and secondhand was a better option.

The “buy/sell/trade” stores like Crossroads and Buffalo Exchange experienced incredible growth during this period. Why? When people have less money, they no longer want to give things away to a donation bin.  They want to make a little bit of cash off of it. We saw this back in the 1970s, when thrift stores saw a drop in donations because middle class people–really struggling under the pressure of inflation–were selling their stuff at yard sales and flea markets, rather than just giving it away.

I was kinda laughing at this early 2008 NYT  article (pre-financial crisis) that explained how these buy/sell/trade places work, just because it felt like someone trying to explain a “cool new” thing to someone out of the loop:

Two national chains, Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads Trading Company, allow shoppers to bring in clothes they no longer want for cash or to trade for clothes in the store. Both promote their fashionable offerings, in an attempt to appeal to younger shoppers. And both offer a combination of new and what they term “recycled” clothes.

“A lot of the neighborhood men who shop in our store are very style-conscious,” said Mary Dalton, the manager of a Crossroads store near the Castro district in San Francisco. “They can recycle their clothing and not wear it into the ground. Sustainable businesses are becoming more trendy, so people are more open to it.”

Prices, she said, range from $6 to $75, and popular jeans like Diesel or G Star cost $50 to $65 a pair compared with a regular retail price that can be double or triple that. “People will get three or four garments for the price of one,” she said. “We get all kinds of customers, from an attorney who needs work clothes to the college-age hipster. The age range is very, very wide.”

This article also touches (briefly) upon the idea that people are buying items from the thrift store at a low price and then flipping them via consignment shops or these buy/sell/trade stores at a higher price, turning it into an income stream. This is kinda the most obvious thing, especially since this article was written in 2008, well into the first full decade of an even bigger disrupter in the world of secondhand shopping, eBay!

eBay was born in 1995, just four years after the birth of the internet.  And like a lot of legends, eBay began its life with a different name:  Auction Web.  eBay was wildly disruptive and new because it brought two new concepts to the world via the burgeoning internet: buying secondhand stuff online from total strangers and shopping peer-to-peer, rather than consumer-to-retailer.  You were literally buying stuff from randos.  These were two really wild ideas.

In the beginning eBay was focused on collectibles, toys, comics, coins, pottery, and vintage clothing.  Beanie Babies were actually a major draw and seller on eBay at the peak of the Beanie Baby Bubble...at some point Ty (the maker of Beanie Babies) had tried to run its own eBay style beanie baby exchange on its site...but it just couldn’t keep up with demand and the site would crash. Beanie Baby maniacs migrated to eBay, creating massive growth for the platform. And when eBay went public in 1998, there was legit concern that it was so reliant on Beanie Babies that the platform might go under if the Beanie Babies bubble ever burst!

Meg Whitman was brought in to grow the company and make it more financially stable.  She expanded categories and brought in many more users. In 2000, eBay had 12 million registered users and a cyberinventory of more than 4.5 million items on sale on any given day. In 2001, it had the largest user base of any website.

Kim, what is your experience buying and/or selling on eBay?

In the early days of eBay, most purchases were paid for via money order.  Every once in a while a seller would accept personal checks but that was rare because of course, people would bounce checks, right? Meaning...write  a check that didn’t have enough money in the account to cover it. Then the seller would be out the returned check fee that the bank charged them AND the cost of the item they had just sold. So sellers went with money orders.  A buyer would have a week or so from the end of an auction to mail a money order.  The seller would ship the order upon receiving the money order. So, the average transaction of purchase to receiving the purchase items would often take anywhere from two weeks to a full month.  It was inconvenient for everyone involved. 

Enter Paypal, which allowed people to pay online for their purchases! Major game changer! By 2002, 70% of all eBay auctions accepted Paypal payments and roughly 25% of all eBay purchases were made via Paypal. Paypal was making a fortune off of those transaction fees and eBay wanted a piece of that pie.  After all, wasn’t paypal basically making money off of all of eBay’s hard work?  So it made perfect sense for eBay to buy Paypal in 2002 for a cool $1.5 billion. 

The integration of Paypal made it even easier and faster to shop on eBay, which made shopping for clothing (usually secondhand/vintage) more appealing.   At this point, I don’t think “buy it now” was very common, so you would have to bid and wait. You could set a timer for the last few minutes of an auction.  Everyone had their own strategy for swooping in and winning at the last minute.

“Flipping” secondhand clothing (particularly vintage), but also vintage books, home goods, records, anything really, became a full time job for many early adopters of eBay.  Of course, this also allowed hipsters all over the world to meet up over a cheap beer or whiskey and complain about how “eBay was ruining thrift stores” and how “there was nothing left.” We know that’s not true of course, but wow, it turns out that complaining about resellers has a trend cycle of its own.

At this point, thrift store prices were a lot lower, the assortment at the bins was plentiful, and estate sales and yard sales were full of treasure. It was hard work for sure, but one could source  a few days each week and then list products to sell on eBay. The drawback is that you would have to wait a week for the auction to end and sometimes much longer to get paid.  But more and more smart vintage lovers were making eBay a regular shopping destination. It’s important to remember that Etsy didn’t launch until 2005 and it didn’t add vintage clothing to its platform until 2008. So eBay was the only game in town!

What were people buying (both on eBay and IRL)?  For one, people were continuing to buy secondhand contemporary clothing by specific brands. We saw this begin in the 80s as the brand printed on the label of a garment was just as important as the garment itself. 
  • High end denim was a BIG DEAL at this point, so savvy shoppers were looking for deals on slightly worn/NWOT/NWT brands like Seven, Citizens of Humanity, Diesel, Miss Sixty, Miss Me, Apple Bottoms, True Religion
  • The “it” brands of the mainstream culture: Von Dutch, Juicy, Abercrombie, Baby Phat, Ed Hardy, Tommy Girl, Ugg
  • Luxury brands like Chanel, Marc Jacobs, etc.

In terms of vintage, this was the realm of the hipsters, who had different desires based on their sort of “subgenre” of hipsterness:
  • Vintage tees made everyone happy, often from the 70s or later. These were often seen as part of indie sleaze.
  • The party/electroclash hipsters wanted all the 80s they could get. Black clothing, cocktail dresses, “avant garde” silhouettes (this was a big search term on eBay), oversized blazers.
  • The more twee/crafty hipsters were really into mod, but would take some 50s or 70s if they found it. Secretary blouses, novelty print dresses, cardigans, vintage purses and brooches.
  • Later in the decade, we saw boho of the 60s and 70s become a massive trend, which we will talk about in next week’s episode.

eBay was the most convenient place to find exactly what you wanted, no matter what your taste was because kinda for the first time ever, you could just type words into a little box and have 1000s of options to browse, all without leaving your couch. And odds were high that you would never have encountered most of this stuff IRL.  And this extended beyond clothing, to records, comic books, shoes, jewelry, those Rainbow Brite sheets that reminded you of your childhood, a Hello Kitty contact lens case that was only for sale in Japan! After your package arrived, you could brag about it on your LiveJournal or MySpace!

Soon high profile vintage sellers developed followings of devoted customers, who would watch every auction they launched.  I had my own personal favorites, including one called Sisters of the Black Moon, who specialized in witchy 70s vintage a la Stevie Nicks.  I followed them forever, even after they moved off of eBay and opened their own website, which shuttered in 2021.

I tried SO HARD to remember names of other shops I followed on eBay in the aughts, but I couldn’t think of them.  So if you have any, send them our way!

One successful seller on eBay was Sophia Amoroso, aka the founder of Nasty Gal.  Now, I think we have talked about Nasty Gal quite enough here at The Department, but there is always another nugget that comes up.  Should we take a moment to share any other random memories or facts of the time we worked there? So far we’ve covered flea infestations, huge barrels of pretzels, terrible nightmare meetings in the boardroom aptly named “Mean Girls,” the popcorn machine, “fuxury,” anything else?

Well, Sophia started Nasty Gal on eBay, moving it to its own website in 2008. It’s kind of a wild success story when you think about it.  And I think it would be very challenging for someone to move from Depop or Poshmark to their own company with mega-VC money backing it for several reasons: These platforms kinda anonymize the sellers and make it very challenging to gain a following. On top of that, it’s really hard to raise money these days.

Another online secondhand seller that parlayed themselves into a huge brand is Susan Koger of ModCloth.  She is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met and we’ve definitely had some good times getting into deep conversations about religion.  Susan skipped the eBay route and instead, starting selling vintage clothing on her own website in college, built by her then-boyfriend and future husband, Eric Koger.  ModCloth grossed $18,000 in revenue in 2005 and received its first round of seed funding in 2008. In 2009, the company had $15 million in revenue!! By 2014, it was $150 million. Down the road, ModCloth was sold to Jet.com (aka Walmart) and has changed hands a few times since then. Susan and Eric are no longer part of the company and haven’t been since the sale to Jet.com

Many other sellers may not have parlayed their eBay business into a million dollar empire, but they did open brick and mortar stores or start their own brands. 

So where are we by, oh I don’t know, August of 2008?
  • eBay is allowing people to build their own small businesses selling secondhand items peer-to-peer online. This is actually great because the economy sucks and lots of people are underemployed or at least underpaid. Some are even opening their own businesses helping other people list and sell stuff on eBay.
  • More and more people are shopping at “buy/sell/trade” stores (and selling their stuff there, too) to save money/make a little bit of extra cash.
  • And thrift stores are doing a robust business, between selling to people who are struggling financially and people (who are also probably barely getting by) who are flipping secondhand stuff on eBay

And then the financial crisis of 2008 swoops in and kind ruins the fun.  Was it fun? I think it was a little fun.

From a September 2008 NYT article, Thrift Shops Thriving, but Running Low on Stock

While the nation’s best-known retail chains are pulling out all the stops to lure shoppers and bolster their abysmal sales, their customers are defecting to an unlikely rival: the local thrift shop.

The must-have item for fall, it turns out, is someone else’s castoff.

That may sound like a boon for the thrift stores, and in some ways it is. Yet the same economic woes that are sending buyers their way are causing donors to hand over fewer items, so that many stores are running low on inventory.

The Salvation Army, which operates 1,300 thrift shops in the United States, said the tough economy had led consumers to hold onto their old clothes longer and to use Web sites like eBay and Craigslist to make money from unwanted items, suppressing the usual flow of donations.

Figures from the Salvation Army show that sales have spiked 5 to 15 percent at stores around the country in recent months, compared with the same period a year earlier, yet donations are down 10 to 25 percent.

Sales were also up about 6% at Goodwill, with donations being down 5-10%, depending on the area.  Stores also cited a rise in gas prices (particularly diesel for trucks) as another factor impacting donation volume.  Stores that did pickups of donations from people’s houses had to cut back in order to keep their fuel and transport budget in check. This also cut the move of inventory from stores with too much to stores with less to sell.  A lot of the modern thrift model consists of logistics, moving stuff from point A to B to C and sometimes D.

As we have seen in previous eras, lower supply of donations motivates thrift stores to be more aggressive about getting more donations. Something that has become very apparent during my research of this series is that thrift stores sorta rely on overconsumption for their business model.  Not their customers overconsuming per se, but rather their donors over consuming. There is a direct correlation between shopping and donation. If donors are constantly buying new stuff/upgrading their furniture, home goods, electronics sooner than necessary, then the thrift store benefits from a steady flow of newer, constantly increasing quality inventory. And the “relief” of donation makes buying new stuff easier than ever because you don’t have to deal with the burden of the “old” stuff.  As a lifelong regular thrifter, I can see the impact of the Home Goods Industrial Complex, as thrift stores seem to have more and more throw pillows and home tchotkes that were made, bought, and donated within the past few years.  It’s easier than ever to buy new decor stuff constantly.

But in 2008, with the economy taking a turn in a bad way, customers were hitting the brakes with the shopping. So the big chains took to the air waves to run commercials detailing the impact of donations on the community.  Stores offered discount coupons to donors. And the big thrift chains did a media blitz of interviews extolling the virtues of donating to their chain over others.

Again from the NYT:

In response to the slowdown in donations and the growing need for social services, the Salvation Army is introducing the sort of national advertising and marketing campaign usually ordered up by department stores and specialty retailers.

Salvation Army officials believe that if more Americans were reminded that the money generated by thrift stores goes toward drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, they would be more likely to make donations. The campaign will include fliers, signs, new logos on trucks and even some radio and television advertisements.

"We're going to be more aggressive about marketing," George Hood (national community relations and development secretary for the Salvation Army)  said. "Instead of operating like a charity, we now know we have to operate like a real retailer."

In general, this is when we see thrift stores really leaning into the “charitable” component of their business, putting up posters about their give back to local organizations, telling customers that they were doing a good deed just by shopping there, and even beginning to extol the environmental impact of shopping secondhand.

But we can’t talk about the post recession world without talking about…FAST FASHION! Which was really born out of the 2008 financial crisis. Sure, it existed before then, but in a much smaller way. I worked in buying at Urban Outfitters at this point (spoiler: I was broke AF and the company put a wage and promotion freeze in place, so I was also selling things on eBay when I had the time).  Let me tell you: no retailer got out of the recession unscathed. Almost immediately, retailers found themselves discounting inventory as deeply as possible. And many were able to clear it out. But that was fall/winter…when spring rolled around, people still weren’t ready to go back to paying full price.  So, everything had to be sold on sale again.  Retailers made this work by cutting back operating costs, specifically laying off workers and cutting payroll expenditures by working with leaner staff everywhere (even in places like stores, which didn’t really work very well). And many companies began to rely on temp/contract workers in a bigger way, for years and years on end.

Many retailers thought this discounting would be temporary. But by late 2009, no one was doing better financially and they were still unwilling to pay full price.  To make matters more complicated, retailers like Forever 21 and H&M were blowing up by selling clothes at prices that didn’t even make sense because they were so low. Sure, the quality was often significantly lower than other retailers, but customers didn’t care. They didn’t want to buy less just because they had less money. They wanted the same amount of new clothes in their lives (maybe even more) and quality did not matter.

Other retailers saw how this was playing out and it put them in a real pickle. Surely the recession would pass some day.  And if they copied the Forever 21 model of  literally the lowest prices, how would they dig their way out of that when the recession ended? And wouldn’t it be brand damaging?

Here’s how they got around it: they kept the prices on their tags the same, but they put everything on sale or promo really fast.  They planned to almost never sell anything at full price.  The tagged price was more of a suggestion than a reality. Everything was engineered to sell on sale and still be profitable.  To make that work fabrics had to be cheaper (much more polyester) and the garments had to cost far less to make. We are still living with the repercussions of that shift right now.

With brand new clothes being so cheap, interest in secondhand clothing waned for many, except for those interested in vintage or higher quality brands.  That market was as strong as ever.

And to be fair, the biggest fashion icons of the 00s didn’t wear secondhand or vintage clothing.  They were clad head to toe in the hottest brands of the moment:

It’s no wonder that with this continued obsession with brands, that the “off price” stores continued to flourish during this time, offering a low price alternative to shopping secondhand for your hideous low rise jeans or shirts that were just really long. TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Nordstrom Rack began to invade shopping centers all over the country. The mainstream culture just didn’t have a lot of use for secondhand shopping.

Meanwhile, the hipsters fucking loved it , but they often tended to mix real vintage with new fake vintage knockoffs (omg UO made so much money during this era, especially on faux vintage tees).  American Apparel was basically a redo of the 70s and 80s, but with more misogyny added.

Even the fastest fast fashion brands were looking to vintage for inspiration, so it wouldn’t be uncommon to find something that looked like it was straight out of the 60s at Forever 21 or Old Navy.  Stores like American Eagle and Abercrombie sold a sort of “broken in/deconstructed” version of americana clothing, all designed to look secondhand and well worn. And people loved this faux secondhand look.

In fact, in 2006, Forever 21 launched its own new retail concept called “Heritage 1981” that was meant to  take on UO, American Eagle, Abercrombie, and Free People all in one store.

According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, said of the new concept

Heritage clothing, priced between $25 and $50, is made of natural fibers, in contrast to Forever 21’s clothes, which are usually priced in the $15 range.

Heritage clothes are classically inspired, woven pieces with colorful prints and plaids, knits and carefully faded denim. Notably absent are career clothes and clubbing duds.

The atmosphere of Heritage stores also will contrast with the Forever 21 stores, with weathered doors, wood-framed windows, vintage artwork and hardwood floors. Forever 21 stores have standard white walls and white floors, and pop music is always humming.

So by the time we end the 00s, secondhand shopping isn’t really anyone’s sole source of shopping because there are so many options, no matter what your priorities were:
  • Low prices? Hit up just about any retailer or go to an off-price store.
  • Vintage aesthetic? Once again, hit up a wide variety of retailers at a wide variety of price points.

We weren’t quite talking about the environmental impact all of those new clothes yet, so consumers were primarily motivated by price, aesthetic, and convenience.  And even eBay wasn’t as convenient as buying a fake vintage item from the mall.