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Karla Ahlqvist, owner of Wildlife Thrift Store, stands in the downtown Vancouver store on Sept. 23, 2021.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

Before the pandemic, Tomi-Rose Clarke had been an enthusiastic vintage shopper – and an employee at brick-and-mortar thrift shops – for years. But after a shockingly good haul, they decided to launch their own online vintage resale business via an Instagram account named Caprice Vintage.

“I didn’t plan on doing it at all, especially not this quickly,” says Clarke, who uses they/them pronouns. “I went to this estate sale, and it had so much stuff that I couldn’t leave it. I spent about $300, but each piece worked out to about $4. I was like, ‘Okay, well, I guess I’m starting now.’ Because I only really wanted to keep three things for myself! The rest I had to sell.”

Clarke isn’t alone in their love of vintage, or their desire to turn it into a business. According to ThredUp’s 2021 Resale Report, after an understandable dip in 2020, the global second-hand market, which includes resale and traditional thrift and donation, is expected to double in the next five years, growing to $77-billion.

Ahlqvist’s main form of marketing for Wildlife Thrift Store is Instagram where she posts some items for sale and reposts other people’s photos on Instagram stories.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

In 2020, 36.2 million first-time sellers participated in the resale economy, a number that dwarfs sellers who had previously sold second-hand clothing – which stood at only 16.4 million. Much of this speedy adoption comes down to ease, with apps and websites like Etsy, Poshmark, Depop, the RealReal and Grailed making both buying and selling used clothing quick and convenient. But after people engaged in a little pandemic decluttering, then donated their no-longer-wanted duds to thrift stores, there was also just more to buy.

That’s what Karla Ahlqvist found. “We got the most donations we’ve ever received in our history [during the pandemic],” says Ahlqvist, the owner of Vancouver’s Wildlife thrift shop. “And what we found is, it didn’t stop any of our customers. Business continues to boom – I don’t even know how to explain it. People can’t stop shopping. And then they have to get rid of the old because their closets are small. So that’s just more donations and more customers.”

Being in B.C., Wildlife was mostly spared from the lockdowns that disrupted business for stores in other provinces. For Toronto’s Common Sort, on the other hand, sales were initially non-existent. When Ontario mandated the closure of non-essential businesses, Nicole Babin, the buy-and-sell store’s owner, decided to shut its doors and lay off its employees. “We did not want to do an online store during [lockdown] as that would have meant our staff would have had to take transit and come to work, when we really just wanted them home safe,” she says.

Being in B.C., Wildlife Thrift Store was mostly spared from the lockdowns that disrupted business for stores in other provinces.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

Even when lockdowns lifted, new COVID-19 policies have put a dent in Common Sort’s sales. “We’ve had to minimize the number of customers coming into the shops,” says Babin. “So, we’ve decided to forgo doing things like an end-of-season sale that would bring a lot of people in at once. Our major change was to implement an appointment system for selling so we could safely have sellers come in and avoid the clusters of sellers that we are used to.”

But like Ahlqvist, Babin hasn’t noticed a drop in customer demand – the selling appointments fill up weeks in advance.

Karlyn Percil, a Toronto-based speaker, author and chief executive officer of KDPM Consulting Group, has an explanation for that: great quality and inventory. “I visited my favourite stores in Kensington Market and on Queen Street [by appointment], and a trip to Hamilton also revealed a new vintage store that I have visited twice since the pandemic,” she says. “Some of my favourite finds include some jumpsuits, robes, as well as a French blouse and a beautiful silk shirt that fit quite well with my ‘top-first’ approach for Zoom training sessions.”

Percil says sustainability is a key reason for her love of vintage. “I’m drawn to vintage because of the cut, the quality of the fabric and the fit – there’s no comparison,” she says. “And the more we shop vintage, the less fast fashion thrives, which means fewer clothes going to the landfills as well.”

Despite not selling any items on their website, Wildlife Thrift Store has thrived during the pandemic. Ahlqvist recently had the website redone to show video of the store’s interior so viewers can understand the experience of being there.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

While she doesn’t love the online shopping experience – it’s harder to get a sense of sizing and quality, especially when it comes to small details, she says – many customers do, and for some vintage retailers, online selling, particularly on Instagram, helped save their businesses. At Toronto vintage shop Mama Loves You, which is run by mother-daughter team Melo and Mahro Anfield, Instagram was the perfect platform to make smaller sales, while more expensive items got added to the e-commerce section of its website. It was so successful that they plan to keep Instagram going even beyond the pandemic.

Clarke isn’t surprised to hear that. They point out that online, retailers have to be ultra-specific, from providing exact measurements to noting even the tiniest piece of damage. “I’ve had more problems buying in-person and getting clothes where there’s a stain on the back that I didn’t notice or a rip somewhere. Whereas online, they’re so specific and descriptive, I think because many come from sites like Etsy and eBay and are more likely to take the side of the buyer. But then you’re generally paying a little bit more,” they say.

Whether in-store or online, retailers don’t see demand decreasing any time soon. “As long as people are living and breathing, I’ve learned they’re going to keep shopping,” Ahlqvist says.

And shoppers, especially Gen Z and millennials, are swiftly embracing the money-saving and sustainable aspects of second-hand shopping. According to ThredUp, 33 million buyers bought second-hand for the first time in 2020, and that number is likely to rise in the coming years. The report also found that 2 per cent of all consumers and 53 per cent of millennials and Gen Z say they plan to spend more on second-hand clothing in the next five years.

Clarke is counting on it. Building Caprice Vintage is “slow going, but it’s happening,” they say. “The hardest part was picking a name!”

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