Quartz Weekly Obsession: Thrifting: The thrill of the hunt

Sponsored byThriftingMay 19, 2021

What goes around comes around

In the 1800s, textiles were hard to come by, so people rarely got rid of clothes. As cities grew rapidly and mass-production of clothing changed the game, well-off urbanites started to dispose of some things from their closet—primarily by donating them to charity organizations.

It’s there that thrift shops—then dismissively called “junk stores”—got their start. Companies like Goodwill and the Salvation Army launched as a way to fund outreach and ministry programs. In the 1920s, they became known as “thrift” stores, to better appeal to middle-class housewives instead of the immigrant populations who primarily shopped there. But even with the focus on altruistic and cost-effective benefits, thrift shops and secondhand stores were often the subject of racist stigmas.

After World War II the game changed. Pop culture, counterculture, and high-brow culture drove followers to secondhand stores to find items from yesteryear that might better reflect their interests (and cost them a lot less than your standard department store find). And thanks to societal shifts like grunge rockers becoming fashion icons for their thrift store threads and the Great Recession taking a toll on retailers and consumers alike, much of the baggage associated with the idea of “secondhand” wore off.

Nowadays, the internet has opened up a whole new world for thrifting, and business is booming.

Let’s go on the hunt.

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🌐 View this email on the webBY THE DIGITS

1,566,195,611: Number of Youtube views on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” music video, as of publication. The Value Village depicted in the video closed in 2015.

>25,000: Number of resale, consignment, and not-for-profit resale shops in the US

2,700 liters: Water required to make one cotton shirt

70%: Share of millennial and Gen Z consumers who say sustainability is an important factor while making buying decisions

10.5 million: Tons of clothing that get thrown away by Americans every year

$76,000: Amount in sales the average thrift store employee generates each year

1.29 million: Active buyers on ThredUp in the first quarter of 2021

$10: How much Winona Ryder paid for the thrifted dress she wore to the 2001 OscarsGiphyDEPARTMENT OF JARGON

Closet refresh

Although the internet’s hunger for secondhand fashion has flattened the distance between the definitions (see below), not all thrifted goods are the same.

Vintage: Typically a little more higher end, both in price and selection. Like in wine (from where the term is believed to have stemmed), it’s often deployed to suggest an investment, and a worthwhile one at that.

Secondhand: Goods—usually furniture, clothes, appliances, etc.—that have been resold to and by a store. Think chains like Crossroads, Buffalo Exchange, Half Price Books, and other consignment stores that pay you for old clothes or books, as well as online sites like Depop or Poshmark.

Thrifting: Traditionally applied to charitable organizations, where items were donated rather than sold. Think Goodwill or Salvation Army.SPONSORED BY CODE42

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Paying the price

By the 1950s, secondhand stores had shed their humble beginnings and “vintage” clothes were a treasure trove for a wealthier set—a thrill that hasn’t waned in the years since. Nowadays, thrifting can be done anytime, anywhere, thanks to sites like Depop, Poshmark, The RealReal, and ThredUp. Sellers’ closets can quickly become a rotating door of looks (often shown off on YouTube and TikTok), allowing the user to make way for new styles while also turning a profit.

But that attention has ignited a debate about the soul of secondhand marketplaces, and whether resale sites have contributed to a gentrification of thrifting. Critics argue that flipping thrift store finds into “vintage” fashion causes secondhand prices to rise and harms the more marginalized shoppers who need, rather than want, to shop thriftily. Proponents counter by saying that secondhand clothing is a net good and, particularly in the era of fast fashion, a more sustainable way to shop goods that can’t be recycled very easily.

At their core, each side’s argument could be boiled down to how much responsibility they think the consumer (rather than the retailer or the manufacturer) should take for the dire economic and environmental repercussions of the market. But while the debate may have new retailers and representatives, it’s a division that’s held since the beginning of thrifting. Even in the 1970s retailers claimed the vintage clothes boom had caused prices to quadruple. And certainly as long as the fashion industry continues to churn out styles at a faster and faster rate, it doesn’t seem like the thrift shop market will slow down.QUOTABLE

“The idea is that you’re giving it to someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to buy, and that has expanded to such a degree that there’s so much secondhand clothing waste, [the] equation doesn’t work out anymore.”

Historian Jennifer Le Zotte to Vox

“We were sewing up hip pads from shoulder pads out of thrift stores, and figuring out what identity was for us, and what girlhood and womanhood was for us.”

Janet Mock, speaking to Lena Dunham, on the podcast Never Before with Janet Mock

“I buy it, but I don’t talk about it.”

A woman to the New York Times in 1966 on her thrift findGiphy

POP QUIZWhich brand is the largest for-profit thrift store chain in the world?

Salvation ArmyBuffalo ExchangeValue VillageGoodwillIf your inbox doesn’t support this quiz, find the solution at bottom of email.FUN FACT!

A North Carolina man bought an oil painting for $6.99 at his local Goodwill. It turned out to be an early piece by artist Uwe Werner, worth about $1,600. But he didn’t resell the painting.


A 2018 survey found that 60% of thrifters prefer to shop in person. In 2021, even a global pandemic didn’t slow thrift shopping down all that much. In fact, in comparison to regular retail, it’s actually held on pretty well.

According to a report from ThredUp, resale markets are expected to grow to a $64 billion industry by 2024, and the company expects the fashion resale market to see 69% growth between 2019 and 2021. Quite a feat considering the broader retail sector is projected to shrink 15%.

“In general, it’s increasing in popularity and I think during the pandemic people have been really more budget conscious,” Jessica Pruitt, the marketing associate manager at Buffalo Exchange, told The Daily Wildcat. “I think a lot of people sort of want to update their wardrobes to suit their current lifestyles.”

So while we all may joke about riding out the pandemic in the same old sweatpants and hoodies, our online shopping habits beg to differ. Although companies like ThredUp and Poshmark saw their stocks dip in the last week, both are hopeful that people will want to freshen their wardrobes in a post-vaccine world.YouTubeWATCH THIS!

For this gift I feel blessed

Kurt Cobain—the late frontman of iconic grunge band Nirvana and early adopter of what would become the staple 1990s wardrobe—talks about how thrift shopping made his fashion finds more meaningful, like a treasure hunt.Illustration by Vasya KolotushaDIVE EVEN DEEPER

The future’s in store

As virtual as our lives have become, we’re still physical bodies operating in physical spaces. Brick-and-mortars remain an indispensable way for us to interact with products and brands—those who thrill at the idea of a good thrift hunt know what we mean. Also, in a lot of ways, stores are still more convenient than their online counterparts.

Our latest field guide explores why many brands are still betting on in-person shopping, and how technology is changing the way companies use stores.

It’s Retail Week here at Quartz, and being a member will guarantee you get the most out of it. Grab one now for 40% off using code “RETAILWEEK”—this week only!Sign me up!Giphy

POLLAre you thrifting more than usual during the pandemic?

Click here to vote💬 LET’S TALK!

In last week’s poll about Eurovision, over 50% of you said the contest is a “Party for Everybody.” What you didn’t know is that you were also voting between three songs—here’s the song you chose by Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki. OK fine, here are the other two: “No Prejudice” by Iceland’s Pollapönk and “Why Me?” by Ireland’s Linda Martin.

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Today’s email was written by Zosha Millman, edited by Susan Howson, and produced by Jordan Weinstock.


The correct answer to the quiz is Value Village.

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