Consignment and dry cleaning industries boom as pandemic wanes

James Reinhart, CEO of ThredUP, estimates that billions of hardly worn clothing items are sitting in shoppers’ closets. As restrictions loosen and people begin to purge their wardrobes of lockdown outfits, online resale sites and donation spots are seeing gains. 

Matt York/AP/File
At the ThredUp sorting facility in Phoenix, a man hangs clothing on a three-tiered conveyor system on March 12, 2019. The consignment and dry cleaning industries are seeing a boost as people head back to work and reinvent their personal style.

Alina Clark is about as tired of her pandemic wardrobe as her comfort clothes are stretched and torn.

“I have four sets of jeans, seven shirts and five sweaters that I wear every week,” said Ms. Clark, co-founder of a software development company in Los Angeles. “They’re everything I’ve worn in the last two years. Me and my wardrobe are suffering from COVID fatigue.”

A wardrobe purge is on for some as vaccinations have taken hold, restrictions have lifted, and offices reopen or finalize plans to do so. The primary beneficiaries: resale sites online and brick-and-mortar donation spots, continuing a trend that’s been building for the last several years.

At the resale site Poshmark, orders are up for handbags and work-worthy dresses when compared to last year. The same goes for blazers, suit jackets, and heels.

Projections show the trend growing stronger. The secondhand clothing business is expected to more than double, from $36 billion to $77 billion in 2025, according to a recent report commissioned by the secondhand marketplace ThredUP and the research firm GlobalData.

The growth is driven by an influx of new sellers putting high-quality clothing into the market, said James Reinhart, co-founder, and CEO of ThredUP. He estimates that 9 billion clothing items that are hardly worn are sitting in shoppers’ closets.

Even before COVID-19, buying and selling secondhand clothing was popular, but the pandemic made the appetite for thrift even more appealing.

The post-pandemic shopper is more environmentally conscious and is showing a greater appetite for clothes that have good resale value, rather than disposable fast fashion, Mr. Reinhart said. People who haven’t been able to wear most of the items in their closets for a year are more aware of waste and want to put their clothes back in circulation.

“There’s a new mindset around clothing consumption,” Mr. Reinhart said. “It’s not this buy, wear, throw out. There is this consciousness that happened during the pandemic where people were much more sensitive to this notion of waste.”

Maia DiDomenico’s mother introduced her to ThredUp during the pandemic. A recent college graduate who began a new job working with kids on the autism spectrum in Cranford, New Jersey, purged some Athleta sportswear on the site and received $557.60 in Athleta gift cards in exchange.

“It cleans your closet out quickly, and you have the chance to donate unwanted clothes,” she said.

For months Ms. Clark has had the urge to declutter her overflowing wardrobe, and she began piling up clothes for donation several weeks ago. But she’ll be purchasing new clothes.

She’s looking for some “glitz and glamour” as her Zoom life soon ends and physical get-togethers have begun.

Consumers are purging more than their worn-out pandemic wear.

At the luxury resale site TheRealReal, with more than 22 million members, the total value of pre-owned goods sold this year through May was about $239 million, up by 53 percent from the same period in 2019, according to a company report.

Some are taking the opportunity to reinvent their personal style, said Jessica Richards, a trend forecaster and fashion director for the Accessories Council, a nonprofit trade group.

“We saw a lot of consumers abandon their mindless shopping habits and instead focus on investment dressing. Less of being ‘sick’ of their pandemic wardrobes but more wondering why they might own as much or what is the breadth of their closet,” she said. “It’s now about streamlining and zeroing in on what their desired personal style image should be.”

Not everybody is looking to abandon their COVID style, however.

In Lynchburg, Virginia, Cameron Howe is ready to burn just about everything she has worn during the pandemic – except her impressive legging collection – as she transitions from a school career.

“I bought 15 to 20 plus pairs of leggings,” she said. “In a few weeks, I’ll start a new career as a project manager for a local nonprofit. I plan on wearing leggings to work. Thankfully, both my past and new employer are legging-friendly. I don’t really want to wear real pants again. I developed an absolute love of leggings during the pandemic.”

Among those benefiting from the pandemic reawakening in clothes are dry cleaners.

Tom Ryan, vice president of franchising for CD One Price Cleaners, with 34 locations in the Chicago area, said they’ve been seeing an upward turn in dry-cleaning customers after a plunge of 80 percent during the pandemic.

“In March, we started making progress again given the vaccine distribution,” he said. “As more people go back to work, we’re finally starting to see more people bringing their in-office clothes back for professional cleaning. Still, we expect post-pandemic attire and fashion trends to be different going forward with more people in the office less often.”

Mr. Ryan expects business casual to be more the new normal – swapping out button-up shirts for more polo-style wear.

While piles of pandemic clothes are going to churches, donation boxes, and online thrift and resale sites, some people are keeping them in the family.

Samantina Zeon, like many, has gained weight during the pandemic. She has plenty of great clothes she can no longer fit into, so she plans to send the stylish ones to a cousin in Haiti in a 77-gallon blue barrel.

“It’s something many people that have families in different countries do. I have done it before to send food,” said Ms. Zeon, in Queens, New York. “She plans on reselling them in her neighborhood for extra cash.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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