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Luxury consignment shops: Look chic on the cheap

Our Shopping Strategist shows how to find first-rate deals at upscale secondhand stores

Published: April 01, 2014 02:30 PM

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Do you have Armani taste but a Target budget? Consignment stores that specialize in luxury brands might be for you.

They’re not to be confused with thrift stores, where donated clothing is sold to benefit a charity, or websites that sell new name-brand duds at a discount. Upscale consignment shops offer mostly “like new” designer clothes and accessories that the original owner no longer wants (or perhaps fits into).

Consignment boutiquelike outlets have been popping up in most big cities and all over the Web since the 2008 downturn. For example, the TheRealReal.com, started about three years ago by Julie Wainwright, sells preowned designer clothing as well as fine jewelry and fine art. It also has a staff of 30 experts to authenticate items before they’re sold. Discounts are generally 60 percent to 90 percent off retail, depending on the brand.

Rodeo Drive Resale has offered similar deals on designer handbags, shoes, jewelry, accessories, and clothing since 1999; it also offers a 100 percent authenticity guarantee.

Not every consignment retailer is going to have the same great deals, of course. But you can often find things you want at a price you like if you know how to shop these stores. 

Get over the ick factor. Yes, you’ll be wearing goods formerly owned by someone else, but most shops only accept items that are in pristine shape. Does wearing someone else’s shoes still sound unappealing? Consigned shoes may have been worn for fewer hours than department-store floor models. And Wainwright says that about a third of the goods on her site have never been worn.

Still can’t get over it? Only buy goods with tags still attached. Some sites such as eBay let you specify items with tags attached in your search.

Check out local shops, not just websites. Your selection is more limited than it is when shopping on the Web, but you have the advantage of being able to try things on and inspect them before you buy. Go to shops in affluent areas, says Carolyn Schneider, author of “The Ultimate Consignment & Thrift Store Guide” (iUniverse, 2012), and you’re more likely to see designer labels.

You might also get an education. “Stores that have been around for awhile should have someone on staff who can explain to you how you can tell if clothing, handbags, or jewelry is authentic,” Wainwright said.

Do some research before you buy. See what similar new and used items are selling for elsewhere. Read online return and shipping policies, including whether or not you have to pay to send an item back.

If you’re shopping on auction sites such as eBay, check out the shipping charges before you buy. An item could be a great deal, but the seller might try to make it up in the shipping fee (which isn’t refundable even if returns are accepted).

And check out what others are saying about the seller on auction sites, or plug a site’s name and terms such as “problems” or “rip-offs” into a search engine.

For more tips on buying stuff online, see our shopping websites buying guide. You'll find the best shopping websites (based on value, quality, checkout, shipping, customer support, and more) in our Ratings.

Keep in touch. Items move in and out of consignment on a regular basis, and sizes and selection are limited. It’s worth going to walk-in stores fairly regularly to find the best deals and to get to know the sales staff so they will alert you when something you might like comes in.

Many online and walk-in consignment shops also now offer the option of joining a mailing list, which can be an effective way to stay abreast of new shipments and in-store specials. TheRealReal’s free phone app alerts you when an item you want, say, a Chanel jacket in size 8, becomes available. (Plans are in the works to add that feature to the website.) 

Watch out for counterfeits. “Even the richest women in the world give us fakes,” Wainwright said. “They probably have no idea.” So how can you spot bogus goods? Authenticforum.com has guidelines for such retailers as Chanel, Gucci, Louis-Vuitton, and Prada.

Tutorials on eBay can tell you how to spot several fake luxury brands. Many manufacturers, including Coach and Ugg, have information on spotting counterfeits on their sites. Try to stick with sites and shops that say they authenticate items they sell but will also take back any item you discover is fake. 

Buy peer-to-peer carefully. Online sellers post their own goods on sites such as Threadflip.com, Tradesy.com, and eBay. It’s often cheaper to buy direct from an individual seller than through a shop. (Obvious tip-off that a seller is not a retailer: The item is pictured on her bed, or she’s modeling it in front of a kitchen sink.)

As always, check return policies and guarantees. Threadflip, for example, doesn’t require individual sellers to take returns unless the items are “fake, faulty, or falsely advertised.” But it does allow returns for 14 days on what it calls “White Glove” sales, or “mint condition” items from fancier lines (Marc Jacobs but not J.Crew, it says).

“I’d ask individual sellers lots of questions about the item’s condition,” Schneider said. “Make sure they tell you in writing that it can be returned, and send money via PayPal to protect your credit-card data.” 

––Mandy Walker

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.
   

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