Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck: Used kids’ clothes cut cost of back-to-school shopping

Although many kids trotted back into classrooms last month, September is still considered prime season for buying kids’ school apparel. For many parents, though, back-to-school shopping for children’s clothes can be a costly, harried ritual. Kids want cool stuff, but Mom or Dad can’t – or won’t – foot the bill for pricey new duds.

For those trying to stick to a budget, buying “gently used” kids’ clothes is an appealing option, whether it’s online or at a brick-and-mortar store.

On a recent weekday morning, Eulylia Redmond was shopping for her 5-year-old granddaughter at Once Upon a Child, a children’s consignment store on Howe Avenue in Sacramento.

“I like the quality better than buying new at Walmart,” she said, flipping through a rack of denim jackets. Pulling out a $6.50 Gap jacket and a $7.50 Levi Strauss version, Redmond said that discount stores sometimes carry merchandise that’s just too flimsy and doesn’t hold up. “Here, you can get name-brands for cheap, then pass them along to younger ones in the family.”

Even in a recovering economy, buying used still makes sense. “Even though the economy is revitalized, not everyone feels that way. People have to save for retirement, kids’ college or even their vacation,” said Adele Meyer, executive director of The Association of Resale Professionals, based near Detroit, Mich. It estimates there are more than 25,000 resale, consignment and not-for-profit (i.e., Goodwill or Salvation Army) stores across the country. “When people are looking for ways to save, resale is way up there,” Meyer said.

According to the National Retail Federation’s 2014 Back-to-School Survey, the average U.S. family with children in grades K-12 will spend $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics this season, up 5 percent from $634.78 last year.

This year, parents are “prioritizing,” buying school supplies first, then some “basic wardrobe necessities, and lastly following up with fashion,” said Marshal Cohen, president of The NPD Group Inc., in Port Washington, N.Y., in the company’s annual assessment of back-to-school shopping trends.

He said most parents delay until this month for two reasons: “They want to find out what’s ‘cool in school’ before making their purchases,” and they don’t want to buy too early. “September will be the busiest back-to-school month this year, contrary to what stores and retailers may think,” Cohen noted.

At resale stores like Once Upon a Child, a chain of franchised outlets, the array of used clothes is staggering, ranging from size 0 to 16, at prices that typically run 50 to 70 percent off retail. Aside from everyday t-shirts, jeans and school-uniform khakis, the inventory includes everything from ballet tutus to Halloween costumes.

Some moms, however, prefer doing their resale shopping on a computer screen.

Christina Valenzuela, a mother of twin 2-year-olds and an 8-year-old daughter, said she enjoys thrift-store shopping, but towing her kids along can “be a drawback.”

This year, she did most of her daughter’s school-clothes shopping from ThredUP, a San Francisco-based consignment seller of upscale brands for women and kids.

For her daughter, she bought seven pairs of jeans, four dresses, several pairs of shorts, a jacket and a few sweatshirts. Her total: about $220, which she figures is about a third of what she’d pay retail.

“If I’d gone to the mall, I feel like I would have spent three to four times that amount. Even a pair of jeans at Target (are) $16.”

Buying secondhand means the East Sacramento mom can afford the hip brands her third-grade daughter prefers, like Justice jeans, which can cost $30 a pair.

“I’m not spending that much on little-girl clothes,” said Valenzuela, who this year did most of her online shopping at night when the kids were in bed, or before they woke up. While her daughter is fashion-conscious about her clothes, she’s apparently not bothered that they’re previously worn.

“She is aware they’re used,” said Valenzuela, who said her daughter is in an environmental club at her elementary school. “She was part of the ‘green team’ at school, so for her it was, ‘I’m recycling. I’m wearing other people’s clothes.’ She thought it was a badge of honor.”

ThredUP, one of several online sellers of designer-label kids’ clothes, says sales are up dramatically in California and nationally. Founded in 2009 and backed by Bay Area investors, it stocks about 2,500 children’s brands, including Justice, Osh Kosh BGosh, Crewcuts and Ralph Lauren Polo. Last year, it added upscale women’s and maternity clothes. Generally, kids’ clothes are priced at 50 percent to 80 percent off retail, including those still with their original price tags.

You can request a free shipping bag, which is sent to your home along with a pre-paid shipping label. You stuff it with “good condition” items you want to sell and it’s picked up free by FedEx or UPS. For every item accepted, ThredUP pays consumers – in cash or store credit – up to 40 percent of the resale value, not the original price. If you want your items returned, there’s a $12.99 fee. Otherwise, items the retailer doesn’t accept are donated to charities or nonprofits like Teach for America.

At ThredUP’s warehouse in San Leandro, thousands of clothing items are sorted, photographed and posted on the website daily.

According to ThredUP, by the age of 17, a child will have outgrown more than 1,300 articles of clothing, costing parents nearly $14,000 to replace.

Buying used kids’ clothes also holds appeal for new moms, whose babies quickly outgrow their infant sizes. Pushing her 4-month-old son in a stroller at Once Upon a Child on Howe Avenue recently, Kaleah Wright said she likes trading in things her baby boy can’t fit into anymore and buying someone else’s almost-new baby clothes.

“It’s buying nice for less,” she said. “We go to Gap or Old Navy, but even on sale, their prices can’t compare.” Pulling out an H&M plaid shirt, size 6-9 months, that was tagged at $2.25, Wright said, “You can’t beat that.”

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