Venerable names like Macy's, J.C. Penney and Stage Stores embrace thrifting in push to jumpstart sales and lure younger shoppers
By Suzanne Kapner
Some of the country's biggest retail names are following online startups into the cult of thrifting, casting aside long-held fears that selling secondhand goods would cannibalize the market for new goods.
Macy's Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. this past week unveiled partnerships with resale marketplace thredUp Inc. to sell used clothes and accessories in some of their stores. Outdoor brand Patagonia plans to open a temporary store in Boulder, Colo., this fall dedicated to selling pre-owned goods, its first such location.
Thrifting is gaining traction as shoppers have grown more bargain conscious and concerned about the environmental impact of fashion, particularly the throwaway clothing model popularized by fast-fashion chains.
"We looked deeply at Generation Z consumers, and recommerce came up over and over again," Macy's Chief Executive Jeff Gennette said in an interview, referring to the burgeoning resale market. "It's not a downside that something has been preowned."
Thorsten Weber, chief merchandising officer of Stage Stores Inc., which has thredUp shops in about 45 of its department stores, said traditional retailers are just beginning to wake up to the impact of resale. "Just like off price became a disrupter, resale will be a disrupter," he said. "It will be a force in the industry."
Other chains, including Bloomingdale's, which is owned by Macy's, Urban Outfitters Inc. and Ann Taylor, are taking a slightly different approach by launching services that let shoppers rent clothes instead of buying them. Customers can even rent home décor at West Elm, which has partnered with Rent The Runway Inc. for the program.
"Customers are looking at dead inventory in their closets," Mr. Gennette said. "They may wear an item once or twice, but why do they have to own it?" And if they can save a garment from going into a landfill, so much the better, he added.
For traditional retailers, many of whom are struggling with sluggish sales as shoppers buy more online, resale and rental is a way to bring younger customers in the door.
Phil Graves, Patagonia's director of corporate development, said shoppers who buy used clothes from the outdoor brand are typically a decade younger than those who purchase new gear from the chain.
Patagonia began selling used goods in 2017 under its Worn Wear label, although it has provided repairs of existing gear since the 1970s. Shoppers can send back used items by mail or drop them off at one of the retailer's 34 U.S. stores. In return, they get a credit of up to $100 that they can use on future purchases.
This fall Patagonia will launch Recrafted, a line made from old clothing and other gear that couldn't be resold in their current state. The items are refashioned into new garments, including jackets, bags and vests.
Resale is still a small business for most traditional retailers, but it is growing fast. At Eileen Fisher Inc., which pioneered resale a decade ago, it accounts for about 1% of sales. Sales of Levi Strauss & Co.'s authorized vintage garments have tripled since the line was introduced in 2017, but are still a tiny fraction of overall sales, said Jonathan Cheung, Levi's senior vice president for design innovation.
Many traditional chains, particularly luxury brands, continue to sit on the sidelines, worried that a booming secondary market will depress demand for new goods.
"If you've sold new cars your whole life and all of a sudden you're going to start selling used cars, the immediate fear is, what if all the customers just buy used cars?" said Andy Ruben, the CEO of Yerdle Recommerce, which operates resale programs for brands. "The reality is that people who want used items are going to find them anyway."
That is what has been happening with Michael Kors handbags, said John Idol, chief executive of parent company Capri Holdings Ltd.
"There's no question that resell in North America impacted the Michael Kors accessories business," Mr. Idol recently told analysts. "There is a substantial amount of product that is resold on numerous websites. We don't sell to those companies directly. But you can find our product on there."
Nevertheless, Mr. Idol said Michael Kors isn't rushing to launch a resale business of its own. "We'll be very slow" in evaluating these new opportunities, he said.
One issue keeping traditional retailers at bay is sourcing. Old-school chains are set up to sell thousands of the same item, not thousands of one-of-a-kind pieces that need to be vetted and cleaned.
"It's not that easy to find the goods," Levi's Mr. Cheung said.
Mr. Cheung said employees scour thrift shops, yard sales, websites and vintage dealers for jeans from the 1980s and 1990s that Levi resells in its eight flagship stores.
"There has been a change in the perception of vintage goods," Mr. Cheung continued. "When I was growing up, they signified that you couldn't afford new clothes. Now, it's a status symbol. It says you've made an intelligent and sustainable choice."
As a fast-fashion retailer and pioneer of the throwaway-clothing trend, H&M isn't usually top of mind when it comes to sustainability. But the Swedish chain has been working to change that. In 2013, Hennes & Mauritz AB launched a program that lets shoppers drop off used clothes at H&M's nearly 4,500 stores world-wide.
The items, which can be from any brand, are collected by a recycling company. Roughly 60% are resold through local thrift shops and markets; the rest are turned into other products or fibers for new garments.
Eileen Fisher was one of the first traditional brands to dive into resale in 2009 when it launched a program for employees. It eventually opened it to the public, and resale took off in 2013, when the company posted signs in its stores that read, "We'd like our clothes back, thanks very much," said Cynthia Power, director of Renew, the brand's resale and recycle program.
Today, the company sells used clothes in a handful of its 67 Eileen Fisher stores, as well as in two free-standing Renew stores and on its website. Used clothes typically cost about a quarter of the price of new items, Ms. Power said.
Ms. Power said selling used clothes hasn't hurt sales of new clothes. "It gives customers another reason to come to the store," she said. "It's an add-on purchase."
Write to Suzanne Kapner at Suzanne.Kapner@wsj.com
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