Why you might be paying more for vintage clothes

Columnists from CBC Radio7:42Thrift-flation

At the store Mrs. Huizenga in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, you can find racks upon racks of vintage dresses, suit jackets, sweaters and blouses. 

You can also get a lesson on the thrifting economy from store owner Catherine Huizenga and her partner Dave Amer.

Like many businesses, theirs is feeling the effects of inflation and the rising cost of rent. 

“Our landlord gets paid every month regardless of how well we do. Now, he’s a good man. He’s a fair man, but he’s a businessman. He wants to get paid,” said Amer.

Normally a refuge of affordability, thrift enthusiasts and shop owners alike say thrift store prices have been steadily climbing along with everything else. Experts who study the thrift retail market have noticed that prices are rising but say it’s difficult to pin the blame on just one factor. 

Some of it is simply supply and demand — more people have become second-hand shoppers while their spending power has been reduced by inflation.

Another aspect, Huizenga said, is the way the local economy is “interconnected.” 

If she and Amer don’t make as much profit, for example, that’s money they won’t be spending at the local pub. And if waitstaff at the pub aren’t getting tips, that means they aren’t spending money in her store.

A man and woman smile while standing among racks of clothing.
Catherine Huizenga and her partner Dave Amer are seen among the racks of clothing at her vintage clothing store. (Catherine Huizenga/Instagram)

The fact that shoppers have tighter budgets also means that a mom and daughter who come into the shop might buy two sweaters instead of three.

“We could have used that money from the third sweater for chicken wings,” she joked.

Huizenga and Amer say they’ve worked very hard not to raise their prices. 

But that’s not the case everywhere.

More donations lead to higher prices  

“It’s such a crazy landscape right now,” said Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Toronto Metropolitan University.

According to Kozlowski, no one is tracking the price of secondhand clothing the way they are monitoring grocery store prices — but anecdotally, prices are rising and “everyone is commenting on it.

We know that people are shopping more secondhand. But where and how those secondhand clothing prices are increasing in thrift is really dependent on where and what type of thrift retailer it is,” she said.

A woman poses in a matching winter toque and cardigan with bare winter trees in the background.
Anika Kozlowski, assistant professor fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Toronto Metropolitan University, says many thrift stores have to charge more because they now get so many donations, and the cost of sorting and disposing clothes they can’t sell is high. (Stefania Yarhi)

Bigger cities, such as Toronto, tend to have higher prices to match the higher rents and other operating expenditures, and Kozlowski said globally, North America has some of the most expensive thrift.

Yet inflation only partially explains why you might be paying more for that vintage sweater. 

The high volume of donations is another big reason, she said. 

“We know that the message is getting out to just donate everything.”

But that means stores have to pay staff to do the work of digging through the duds to find pieces that are worth selling. 

“You have a lot more that likely is not going to be sellable for your store. So then you have storage and you have disposal costs associated with that. And commercial disposal costs can be quite expensive,” Kozlowski said.

A woman in a rust-coloured pants and a patterned sweater poses for a photo outside.
Fashion writer and thrift shopper Key Michel says competition with online resellers is part of the reason prices are going up in vintage stores. (Submitted by Key Michel)

Pandemic recovery affecting prices 

When fashion journalist Key Michel noticed thrift prices going up where she lives in Boston, Mass., she outlined some of the possible reasons on her blog, The Key To Fashion.

Unlike what Kozlowski was seeing in Canada, Michel said donations appear to have decreased in the United States because of the recession.  

“You’re seeing a lot of empty racks,” she told CBC. 

Even with less inventory, stores in the U.S. are charging more for the items they are selling in order to make up for revenue they lost during the pandemic. 

“They want to compete with the resale fashion apps.… They want a piece of that pie. And instead of getting online, a lot of them have just increased their prices…,” Michel said. 

That’s something Kozlowski noted as well — that the popularity of “flipping,” or buying an item and then reselling it at a higher price online, is driving up prices.

“The larger [stores]… know that thrift flipping is happening … and they’re pricing accordingly because they’re like, well, we would rather grab those profits than have a thrift flipper get those profits,” she said.

Ethical questions 

Someone’s willingness to pay more for an item of clothing can depend on the reason they are buying it, said Kozlowski, and more young people are motivated to purchase items that they see as better for the environment.

“You see a lot of gen-Z and millennials thrifting for sustainability reasons,” she said.  

A young woman wearing a dress and black cowboy boots leans with her elbows resting on a newspaper box, where across the alley graffiti murals are seen.
Noelle Britton wearing boots she bought at a thrift store in Toronto’s Kensington Market. (Robyn Gabrovsky)

That’s true of Noelle Britton, a 21-year-old business student at Western University in London, Ont., who also writes about fashion for a school magazine.

“I think it’s really important to make use of what’s already been made and support the community at the same time. And … because I love clothes, If I’m able to combine all those things together, why would I not?’ 

But Britton, who worked at a Value Village during high school, is concerned that not everyone her age is similarly motivated. 

“I’ve seen TikToks and stuff with people going to buy like $500 worth of stuff from the thrift store that they don’t even really need. They’ll buy in bulk and then resell it for higher prices. And that kind of, like, gets me down a little bit.”

She said she’s concerned because of the impact that could have on lower-income communities. 

“If you’re privileged enough, buy nicer secondhand things. Like you don’t need to be taking from your local thrift store because there are people who depend on that for their clothing,” said Britton.

Kozlowski said for that reason, people might want to consider thrifting at stores that are also charities rather than for-profit businesses. 

How do you know if you are paying too much for clothes?

If you want to know if you are being charged too much, Kozlowski said a good rule to follow is to not pay more than 50 per cent of what an item cost new. 

“I’ve seen in some consignment stores, you know for example a Prada jacket and it’ll have a huge rip in it,” she said. “It can be repaired where the rip is … but it’s still ripped, and it’ll still be priced at $400 or $500. And then something that is in a non-known brand, for example, from Europe, but an extremely high quality garment, is priced at $40.”

Extreme cases like this can make prices seem arbitrary to the average consumer, but it’s all carefully calculated by the seller.

They’re going to look at the brand; they’re going to look at the condition, the era. Like is this something that’s trending right now? Is this something that people want? Is it in fashion? So there’s all these variables being put into play,” she said. 

After about 20 years in the business, the art of putting a dollar value on an item of clothing is second nature to Catherine Huizenga. 

“It’s priced from my gut,” she said — but it’s also priced to sell. 

“Every once in a while I’ll stop and I’ll Google something and I’ll  be like, ‘Wow, you know, that was a $600 Coach bag.’ And then I put $125 on it.”

And while some vendors might feel comfortable putting a $500 price tag on that same bag, she said she doubts anyone will be buying it in this economy.