Recycling, tight budgets lead families to second-hand shops By Nicolle Hellerphotos by Josh Hawkins Milicia Barkic-Cirko shops fashion for her daughter Sofija at Once Upon a Child in Chicago.
Visiting Milicia Barkic-Cirko's Chicago home is like playing the at-home version of "The Price is Right." "Guess how much that cost," she says, proudly gesturing to a Little Tikes table and four matching chairs in the corner of her living room. Without waiting for an answer, she excitedly jumps in with a gleeful "only $15!"
When her 21-month old daughter, Sofija, was a newborn, Barkic-Cirko, 35, discovered the joys of resale shopping. A brief tour of her home shows why she is such a huge fan: A wool coat that originally sold for $42 was purchased for $11 and a Fisher-Price Little People Animal Sounds Farm that retails for $27 was only $12. During our tour, her daughter was cooking and washing dishes in a Little Tikes kitchen that originally retailed for $70. She bought it for $22.
Barkic-Cirko is not alone. According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, the resale industry has surged in popularity the last several years. To date, there are more than 15,000 resale stores operating nationwide. And as the new school year approaches with the need for school outfits, it's not a bad time to explore the second-hand world if you have yet to do so.
Why the interest in resale shopping? Some are drawn to eco-friendly personal recycling. While others have found that the stigma of resale shopping has lifted as stores have improved. Long gone is the image of a resale shop as a musty, crowded dumping ground for castoff housewares, broken toys and moth-eaten clothing. Most of today's resale shops are clean, well-run and sophisticated, using computer software to price and track merchandise.
Consumers can now find resale shops that specialize in everything from furs to furniture and from bridal gowns to maternity clothes. The Chicago area is home to more than two dozen resale shops that specialize in children's items, including books, clothing and equipment, such as strollers and cribs.
The one-income stretch Once Upon a Child is a resale giant with more than 240 franchise stores nationally-10 in the Chicago area.
Sharon Olson, co-owner of Once Upon a Child in Chicago and Plato's Closet in Schaumburg, agrees the quality and diversity of resale shops has risen in recent years. But she says something else also may be driving consumer interest in resale shopping.
"Everyone loves a bargain," says Olson. "But I've had many customers in recent years tell me that these bargains are helping their family to successfully live on one salary, so that one parent is able to stay at home and care for their children."
Olson may be onto something. More families are living on a single paycheck today than in recent memory.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of mothers with children under 18 in the labor force has fallen slowly since 1997. In 2002, more than 134,000 of these mothers left the workforce, including Barkic-Cirko.
"Once Sofija was born, there was no question that I would quit my job and stay home," says Barkic-Cirko. "It was the way my husband and I were raised in Croatia, so it felt right to us. By shopping at resale stores, and making other cuts in our spending, we can afford for me to stay home with our daughter and provide her with most of the things she needs and many of the things she wants."
Shopping resale does not mean to compromising on style or quality. Most children's resale shops offer toys from major manufacturers such as Fisher-Price and Little Tikes and clothing from retailers such as Old Navy and the Gap. Makers such as Baby Bjorn, Graco and Safety First can also be found among the equipment for sale.
For those who crave couture for their trendy tots, there are resale shops for you, too. On a recent trip to The Second Child, an upscale consignment store in Chicago's Lincoln Park, clothing from Oilily, Ralph Lauren and Lilly Pulitzer were selling for a fraction of their original, hefty price tags.
Amy Helgren, owner of The Second Child, insists that it's not just the big savings that brings customers to her store. "Our customers are looking for quality, selection and individuality. Plus, they seem to be very pleased that they are recycling."
Some recent "recycled" finds at The Second Child include a $400 Maclaren double stroller for $175 and a $1,500 custom silk crib set for $300. A dress that Henri Bendel sold for $200 last year snatched up for only $80.
Thrifty pioneers Marlene Mahn, 37, and mother of 2-year old Caleb, urges families to remember thrift store pioneers like Goodwill and the Salvation Army when they are looking for bargains. These stores have kept up with consumers' desires and become modern, brightly-lit stores with shopping carts and attractive displays.
In bargain store jargon, a thrift shop is run by a nonprofit organization to raise money for their charitable causes, a consignment shop sells merchandise owned by someone else and pays the owners a percentage after the item sells and a resale shop buys merchandise from individuals and re-sells it.
"The bargains at my local Goodwill store are just incredible," says Mahn, a Palatine resident who cares for her son at home, in addition to running a home-based toy sales business. "Every children's book there is only 49 cents, so we have been able to create quite an extensive library for my son, stocked with modern favorites like Blue's Clues and classics like Goodnight Moon from my childhood."
Olson of Once Upon a Child reminds consumers resale shops can stay in business only if parents continue to sell their gently used items to them. She recommends consumers call a shop to learn their guidelines. For example, her store accepts infant clothing on a seasonal basis and only if they are freshly laundered and boxed or in bins.
"I always tell our customers when they buy merchandise from us to make sure they come back and sell it back to us when they are finished with it," says Olson.
Bargain buy-laws • Safety first-never buy a used car seat or crib.
• A bargain is no bargain if the toy or clothing is unsafe. Check whether a toy or piece of equipment has been recalled by calling the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772 or visit www.cpsc.gov to sign up for free e-mail alerts on the latest recalls.
• Before buying, check each item carefully for excessive wear, stains, rips or missing pieces.
• Shop early and often-resale shops' merchandise is constantly changing. If you're looking for a specific item, call ahead and ask if they have it in stock before you visit.
• Know the retail price for each item before buying-it might not be that great a bargain after all.
• Sign up for each store's mailing list or frequent-shopper program. They'll send you coupons or give you discounts if you carry their card.
• Like other stores, resale shops are seasonal and often have big sales at the end of a season. Call ahead to find out when they are marking items down.
• Halloween costumes and dressy holiday outfits are a steal at resale shops. In most cases, they have been worn only once or twice and are at least 50 percent less expensive than retail.
• Some resale shops offer brand-new merchandise, including cribs, mattresses and wooden toys at discount prices.
Nicolle Heller is a writer, the mother of 19-month-old Harry and the wife of 45-year-old Jon. They live with their two dogs in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. She's probably resale shopping right now.