Good customer service goes a long way, sort of like a well-made garment or piece of furniture.
In fact, clothing and furniture often have many lives and owners through resellers, where one person's unwanted items can be a new living room fixture or fashion statement for another.
But making sure buyers know your resale or consignment shop is just around the corner isn't always easy, owners said. Which is why 12 shops in Cumberland, Dauphin and Lancaster counties banded together to start a "Resale Trail," a bit of marketing so all the shops could benefit from the business of the others.
"I've actually had customers come back and thank me because they found the perfect dress somewhere else on our recommendations," said Donna Ulrich, owner of Hello Gorgeous Consignment Boutique, and the person who first suggested joint marketing among the shops.
Ulrich started the Hampden Township, Cumberland County-based Hello Gorgeous in 2009 and soon started talking to other consignment shop owners about how to help each other with customers. Eventually, she floated the joint marketing idea among six West Shore stores to defray the costs of a map-based brochure showing store locations.
"People who shop consignment shop all of our stores," Ulrich said, pointing out that one consignment shop doesn't have everything.
So if you can't sell to the customer, then send them to someone who might have what they want as a matter of costumer service, she said. That brings people back later.
In 2010, the stores printed 2,500 Resale Trail cards, and each store took some to hand out, Ulrich said. They printed that amount again in 2011, after adding six East Shore stores to the trail. This past year, they printed 5,000 cards because the shops were running out of them too soon, she said.
The effort seems to be working, judging from the pace they go through the promotional cards and the general stream of buyers coming through the stores, Ulrich said. But she didn't have specific numbers to illustrate that success.
Jessica Berman, co-owner of Red Door Consignment Gallery in Dauphin County, said it seems obvious to her that the marketing is helping business. Staffing needs for the shop have changed.
"It used to be one person here all the time, but now we need three here all the time (to help customers)," Berman said about the shop on Paxton Street in Swatara Township.
She said she's had women on "ladies' night-out" trips, where the group bounces from shop to shop along the trail.
In addition to the natural referral system that's grown out of the Resale Trail, it also helps people find shops closer to their homes, Berman said.
"If you talk to anyone in marketing, word of mouth is the best advertising," she said.
The word about consignment shopping could be getting around, judging from statistics of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Between 12 percent and 15 percent of consumers will shop at a consignment store during a given year, and the number of consignment shops has increased by more than 7 percent a year, according to the trade group.
It's not unusual for consignment and resale shops to band together in a metro area to promote themselves, said Adele R. Meyer, executive director of the Michigan-based trade association.
While the resale industry owes a lot of its growth credit to the recession and slow recovery making lower-cost resale shops attractive, social media is becoming important for sustained growth.
"Nowadays, a lot of marketing is happening online with social media, but that's often the individual shops," Meyers said.
Ulrich said she wants to expand the Resale Trail concept in coming years, but there are additional considerations. A website for the stores would be nice, but at the moment it might be too costly, she said.
Putting trail maps in local hotel lobbies would also help expand the potential customer base, she said.
It's possible the trail could include more stores, too, Ulrich said. However, everyone agrees there needs to be a track record of sustained business before a shop is added to the trail.
It could help to have a "thrift shop trail," too, Ulrich said. That way, the nonprofit stores funding charities could take advantage of the same type of marketing, yet it would help define the differences from consignment shops, she said.
In the end, that's what it's all about.
"The hardest part of consignment shops," Ulrich said, "is being able to differentiate ourselves."
Thrifty, nifty, not-new numbers
Like the furniture and clothes in resale, consignment and thrift shops, numbers for the second-hand industry around the country are a bit worn but still in good shape. Here's a look at the U.S. resale industry based on 2010 research, the most recent numbers:
7 percent: Annual growth rate for store locations
25,000: Number of U.S. consignment, resale and thrift shops
$13 billion: Estimated annual revenue of resale/thrift industry
16-18 percent: Americans who will shop at a thrift store
12-15 percent: Shoppers frequenting resale/consignment stores
11 percent: Shoppers buying at factory outlet malls
21 percent: Shoppers buying in major department stores
Source: National Association of Resale and Thrift ShopS
Consignment, thrift or resale?
While consignment, thrift and resale stores have many similarities, they are not necessarily the same, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops.
And the differences have nothing to do with price or quality of items.
Here's how you tell the difference:
Thrift shop: These stores are usually run by nonprofits raising money to fund charitable causes, such as Goodwill, Salvation Army and the small shops run by churches, schools and hospitals. Most items often come to the store by donation.
Resale shops: Resale stores often buy merchandise outright from the owner, then resell the items. Sometimes used as a generic term for all resellers. Consignment and thrift shops can be considered resale shops, but not all resellers are consignment or thrift.
Consignment shops: These stores accept merchandise from owners to sell it for them, then take a percent of the sale for the service. Most shops pay owners between 40 percent and 60 percent on the sale and keep merchandise on shelves for 30 to 90 days.