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Courtney Watkins, owner of vintage boutique Mine & Yours, says the pandemic forced her to embrace online sales.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Courtney Watkins was planning a trip to Toronto. The owner of Mine & Yours, a vintage and consignment boutique in Vancouver, has been eyeing a second location in the Big Smoke, and had already sent some key pieces to the city for a pop-up in the tony Yorkville area on March 18. But on March 17, the Province of Ontario declared a state of emergency – the pop-up, of course, never happened.

For a small business such as Mine & Yours, losing revenue from a single event can be crushing. But the pop-up cancellation was just the tip of the iceberg in March for Watkins, whose vintage store, traditionally dependent on foot traffic and in-person shopping, had to take on a whole new operations model due to COVID-19. When the coronavirus hit, temporarily halting in-store shopping altogether, Watkins had to get online – and fast.

“[At the start of the pandemic] our online store only had about 50 per cent of our products available for sale,” Watkins says. “So at that point, we just put all of our energy on photographing as much as we could, and really shifted our focus towards internet sales.”

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Thanks to the effort, Mine & Yours was able to increase its online revenue by 60 per cent between March and April (though sales were still down overall, since “our bread and butter is in-stores sales,” Watkins says). That she has an online storefront at all makes Watkins somewhat of an anomaly in the vintage retail ecosystem.

An online storefront makes Watkins somewhat of an anomaly in the vintage retail ecosystem.

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When it comes to used goods, shoppers prefer to buy – and retailers prefer to sell – in-person, since previously owned items can be idiosyncratic: vintage clothing sizing is inconsistent; garment tags are not always attached, making it difficult to know accurately what material an item is made of; and a vintage garment’s overall quality, including any damage due to age, can be next to impossible to communicate in pictures and words on a website. But since March, vintage sellers have had no other choice but to embrace the internet.

“Pushing ourselves to sell more online was always on our to-do list,” says Katie Nicholson, co-owner of the Wanderly, a Toronto boutique that sells vintage clothing alongside local designers’ wares and Mexican textiles and pottery.

“One reason we didn’t do it as much previously is because selling vintage online has a whole new set of tasks,” says Sarah Gelfand, the Wanderly’s co-owner. Vintage items sell better when buyers know items’ specific measurements, for instance; Gelfand and Nicholson measure each piece of vintage clothing they sell online, whereas a new clothing item can usually simply be listed as being available in an array of sizes.

While small, independent vintage boutiques have had to pivot quickly to an e-commerce-heavy business model due to COVID-19, existing online resale websites have thrived during the pandemic. Poshmark, a platform on which users can sell used clothing, housewares and accessories directly to buyers, saw a 40-per-cent increase in buyers and sellers and a 50-per-cent increase in new sellers in May 2020; ThredUp, a similar site, saw a surge in sales of 50 per cent in March, when lockdown measures first hit. Due to the economic uncertainties faced by many during the pandemic, buying resale may be more appealing than ever. Simply put, previously owned clothing is often cheaper than its new-with-tags counterpart. Selling, too, has spiked in popularity due to COVID-19. People are either looking for ways to make a bit of extra cash, clearing out their closets due to spending more time at home (and the related desire to improve their living spaces), or both.

Natalia Manzocco, a Toronto writer and social media manager with a fashion-focused YouTube channel, says she’s experimented with online vintage shopping – and a little selling – during the pandemic, but says that the barrier to entry is higher, since “thrift stores are naturally much cheaper.”

“I also think it’s really easy to sort of look at something online and … there’s no real sense of urgency to grab it,” she says. Vintage shopping IRL, in other words, includes the thrill of the hunt – something the online experience can lack.

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In the summer, when lockdown restrictions eased and vintage stores reopened to the public, online sales became less crucial. But vintage stores were still impacted by widespread safety protocols, with second-hand retailers such as Value Village not allowing customers to try on clothing. Now that lockdown has returned to some parts of the country, vintage shoppers can opt for curbside pickup.

And for the team at the Wanderly, the November return to lockdown in Toronto meant that, for a time, their vintage sales operations effectively ceased – between fortifying their online presence for holiday shopping in December and fulfilling online orders at that time, Gelfand and Nicholson didn’t have the time to add their inventory of vintage items to their online store. And while a sales slowdown in January allowed them to catch up on the huge backlog of vintage clothing waiting to be checked for flaws, measured for sizing, photographed and posted online for sale, their return to vintage retail this month was bittersweet: Nicholson says there have been full days with no sales on the Wanderly site, but she hopes that posting vintage goods – despite their smaller profit margins – will help her and Gelfand catch up.

In Vancouver, Watkins is continuing to sell online and is fortunate to still be accepting walk-in customers, but she is unsure of how Mine & Yours would fare in the event of another lockdown.

“We were closed down fully for two months, and we did okay,” Watkins says. “Will we thrive if we’re shut down again? Probably not. But we’ll survive.”

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