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Consignment stores attract shoppers, sellers

| Thursday, April 26, 2012, 11:27 p.m.

Last year's severe economic downturn has many Americans still holding tight to their wallets.

Amid the hazards of pay cuts, layoffs and rising prices, people are scrambling for ways to boost their own bottom line. One way to do that is by selling to and shopping at consignment stores.

Consignment shops work much like thrift stores, except those who provide merchandise for the shelves have a chance to earn cash instead of a tax deduction. The shop staff keeps a tab on how much each item sells for, and the original owner receives a percentage from the sale.

Those who make purchases at consignment shops can look for savings on everyday items while the sellers have an opportunity to line their pockets with some extra money.

Merchandise has been flowing in and out the doors of Tracey's Upscale Resale & Consignment in Indiana, which pleases owner Tracey Howard and those who sell items through her store.

According to Howard, those who sell by consignment can reap financial benefits with minimal effort.

"I'd say most of my consignment people are really happy," she said. "It's better than garage sales. You make more money and you don't have to put the work into it."

Howard first opened Tracey's Upscale Resale & Consignment two years ago, and she tries to move her inventory around to keep it fresh.

The merchandise changes every few months, and her seasonal and housewares items change even more frequently because they continually sell well.

In addition to housewares, Howard focuses on designer and vintage clothing and antiques. But, she said, "We have a little bit of everything."

Her selection and prices seem to be drawing in the customers, which is a win-win for everyone involved -- the store, the seller and the buyer.

"Business, it's been good for us," Howard said.

So much so that on Feb. 22 she moved her shop about a half block west, to a larger space at 622 Philadelphia St. Her new location is roughly three times the size of her previous shop.

"Since we opened up in February, I'm shocked at how busy we've been," she said.

Having the Indiana University of Pennsylvania nearby is a plus for business, with many of the college students and faculty coming in to find bargains.

But, Howard noted, she gets just as much business from long-term members of the community.

"I'm real happy with the support we get from local residents here," she said.

Repeat business, from both buyers and sellers, has been a boon for Howard. "I'd say that just about everybody that comes into the store comes back in," she said.

Howard suggested those intending to offer articles for sale at her store call in advance so she can determine which of the items might be a food fit for the store.

If an accepted item is purchased, the consignment seller collects a percentage of the money received.

For clothing, Howard usually splits the purchase price evenly with the seller, but she noted it really depends on the item. For instance, if a prom dress is sold on consignment, Howard drops the percentage she makes slightly, "Because I know how much money people put into them," she said of such formal dresses and gowns.

For housewares and antiques, Howard usually comes away with 40 percent of the profit.

"The consignment customers always get the higher percentage," she noted.

Howard currently is working with about 80 different consignment sellers and issues checks on a monthly basis to any whose items have been purchased. She noted sellers are welcome to call at any time to get an update on their merchandise.

In terms of clothing, Howard only sells women's apparel, though she eventually wants to expand that to include children's clothing. At her former location, she had tried offering men's apparel, but it didn't sell, so she doesn't see dabbling in that area of the clothing market again.

Designer jeans and clothing are popular sellers and can earn the consignment seller a nice return.

For example, Howard said, a pair of Gap jeans, or apparel from Ralph Lauren or Abercrombie and Fitch, usually sell for between $10 and $14.99 at her shop, so the consignment seller could get anywhere from $5 to $7 for each piece sold.

"We've run them higher, but they usually don't sell for higher than that," Howard said of designer label clothing. "We try to keep the prices at a level so that the customer, the consignment seller and the store all make out. I don't like things sitting in the store, and if no one is looking at it, it will go back" to the seller.

Every once in a while Howard will have a seller who doesn't want the item returned if it fails to attract a buyer. In that case, she will donate the item to Indiana County Human Services, the Salvation Army or another charitable organization.

"It just depends on the item and where it fits best," she said.

According to Howard, much of the clothing sold at Tracey's Upscale Resale & Consignment is new, not used at all. The used items she does sell, she ensures that they were gently and not excessively worn.

Among the top sellers in her shop are items for fuller-figured women.

"We have a really nice selection for larger sized women that you really can't find in town," Howard said, including apparel from Susan Gray and Bob Mackie.

Now that she has more room in the new store, Howard said she may start taking books again on consignment. She noted she's looking for coffee table books and collectibles, not trade and mass market paperbacks and novels.

In an effort to promote local artists and crafters, she has also begun selling locally made jewelry and crafts.

"I wanted to give them an option to sell their items," she said.

If a prospective seller isn't sure whether Howard will accept an item for her store, all they need to do is ask, she said. "I don't say no to anything within reason, really.

"I watch the items for a few months to see if there's interest in them. But I really haven't turned away much of anything because you never know what people want."

What people do want in today's cash-conscious climate is to buy a quality product without spending a pretty penny. Howard believes consignment buying and selling gives the public the opportunity to do just that.

"With the economy, it's a great option for everybody -- for the retail person, the consignment person, the person who needs to make a little extra money," she said. "Sometimes it's hard to give something up, but when you get a little money for it, it makes it easier."

Tracey's Upscale Resale & Consignment is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information about selling on consignment at the shop, contact Howard at 724-471-4171.

Best kept secret?

Consignment shops aren't abundant locally, but there is one that has been in operation for more than a decade -- though many may not know about it.

The Indiana Social Center of Aging Services Inc. runs its own consignment shop at 1001 Oak St., Indiana. But, according to Jan Wascak, program assistant and public information specialist for Aging Services, not everyone is aware that the shop is open to the public.

"It's there for anybody. They do a lot of business, and a lot of people donate to them," Wascak said. But it wasn't until the center recently began advertising the shop that business really began to pick up.

Eileen Sarnovsky, manager at the center, said she's seen a marked increase in customer traffic in the last year and a half, since the economy began to backslide.

Knowing that some people shop there due to financial struggles, the center tries to keep its prices as low as possible while offering a higher percentage of profit to the seller.

The Indiana Social Center shop collects some household items, jewelry, books and clothing that are in good condition, but it does not accept bedding, undergarments or children's clothing.

"We sell basically used clothing for adults, and it has to be in good condition," Sarnovsky said. "We want it to be nice, clean, something they would buy themselves."

If an items doesn't sell after three months, the seller is contacted and asked to collect the merchandise.

"If anyone has a closet they're cleaning out, it's a nice place to donate," Wascak said.

The Indiana Social Center shop is open from 9 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 3 p.m. on weekdays. Anyone interested in offering items to sell on consignment at the shop can call the center at 724-465-2697.

For kid's sake

Parents in Indiana County and those living nearby have another consignment buying option open to them this weekend, thanks to Kristen Conway, a Blairsville native now living in Jeannette, and her business partner, Katie Hartman, also of Jeannette.

Conway and Hartman have organized Cents & Sensibility Consignments, a children's sale held twice a year at the Indiana Fairgrounds, 803 Hospital Road, Indiana.

Conway, a 1996 Blairsville High School graduate and stay-at-home mom, said the economy was one of the biggest factors motivating the two women to organize their consignment business.

"I thought it would be well received because things are so expensive now," she said. "I thought it would help parents make money off their gently used items and at the same time save money on purchases."

Conway met Hartman through their sons' school, and a fast friendship formed. Conway and her husband, Brian, have three children ranging in age from 3 to 8, and Hartman's family will soon welcome a third child, so the women know how expensive it can be to keep ever-growing children in clothes and toys suitable for their age.

"Just being a mother of three, things get awfully expensive, and I took part in a few consignment sales before I started my own," Conway said.

Her husband knew she had been wanting to get back into the workforce part-time, and he suggested she start her own consignment business.

"He thought this would be perfect, something flexible for me, being a stay-at-home mom, and it combined helping in the community and getting back into the workforce," Conway said. "I thought it was a great idea, and started talking to Katie about it, and we said, 'Let's do this.'"

In June 2009, the pair forged ahead in creating Cents & Sensibility Consignments -- deciding on a name, getting all of their paperwork submitted, and securing a location.

The Greensburg area already had a similar consignment sale offered during the year, and Conway wanted to do something in the community where she spent her own childhood and where her parents, Dave and Evelyn Bondra, are still very active.

"I still spend a lot of time in the Indiana County area and thought it would be great to do something where I grew up," Conway said.

With a location set, Conway and Hartman launched an advertising campaign and a Web site that allowed sellers to sign up for the sales.

"Consignors started rolling in," Conway said. "We went and set up our facility, and we were good to go."

Cents & Sensibility held its first sale at the end of September 2009 in the sportsmen's barn at the Indiana Fairgrounds. Once planning was under way for the second sale, it became clear more room was needed, so the partners secured the old skating rink at the fairgrounds for this weekend's sale.

The September sale drew in quite a crowd of both sellers and buying customers.

"We were really excited by the amount of consignments we had," Conway said. "The sales were better than what I had expected."

The September sale featured items from between 25 and 30 consignment sellers, but this weekend's sale has nearly doubled that number with more than 45 consignors bringing items to sell.

Conway pointed out most consignment stores use a 50/50 or 60/40 percentage split on profits, with the higher percentage going to the seller. Cents & Sensibility goes further, offering a 70-percent share to consignors on sales made over the weekend -- minus a $10 registration fee.

The sale will feature maternity and children's clothing and apparel, from infants to size 16 in girls and 20 in boys, as well as a wide variety of all other things kid-related -- including games, toys, infant equipment and children's furniture.

Car seats are accepted, though the consignor has to answer a series of eight questions, including whether or not the seat is less than five years old, whether it has ever been in an accident, and whether it includes its original paperwork.

"When you're talking about a child's safety, we take precautions," Conway said.

Items that are not accepted by Cents & Sensibility include used potty chairs, infant bathtubs, underwear and bottles -- anything where there are sanitary concerns.

"We'll accept them only if they're new in their original packaging," Conway noted.

For this weekend's spring/summer sale, Conway said the partners have many returning consignors and expect to see some return shoppers.

"I've got some people who e-mail me regularly. They can't wait," Conway said.

Those interested in becoming a consignor with Cents & Sensibility can fill out an online application. Once accepted, they are assigned a consignor number and can use the Web site to create price tags for items they plan to sell.

The consignors are asked to have clothing hung and ready to go, and they were to drop off their items Wednesday and Thursday before the sale.

The quantity of items sold by each consignor varies greatly, according to Conway. Some will drop off 20 items, while Conway said one consignor featured in this weekend's sale has more than 600 items.

"It's a huge spectrum," said.

For some, the prospect of tagging and hanging a large quantity of items can be too daunting. For those parents, Conway and Hartman formed the "very busy person," or VBP program, which allows them to simply drop their items off at the homes of either Conway or Hartman, who then prepare the items for sale.

In that case, the consignor's share drops to 50 percent.

In the days before the sale takes place, Conway and Hartman arrange the merchandise on the floor of the selling space, "like a regular store, separated by gender and size," Conway said. "It makes it very easy on the shoppers."

At the end of the sale Sunday, the consignors are asked to return to pick up their unsold merchandise. If consignors fail to show up, or if they state that they don't want the leftover items, the surplus is donated to either the Indiana County Community Action Program or to Birthright of Indiana County.

Conway said checks for sold items are usually sent to consignors within a week after the sale.

Conway and Hartman had decided that they wanted to hold a benefit drive during each of their sales. For this weekend's sale, those attending are encouraged to bring new, unopened bags or boxes of diapers and wipes, which will be donated to Birthright.

Those bringing diapers or wipes for the drive will receive chances to win a gift basket filled with goodies and gift cards. Three tickets for the drawing will be earned for each package of diapers, and one ticket will be given for every package of wipes donated.

The Cents & Sensibility Consignment sales is presented as an ideal outlet for cash-strapped parents who are constantly trying to keep up with their children out-growing both clothing and toys. The events allow them to sell the things their kids have outgrown. At the same time, they can buy quality clothes and items at a lower price from other consignors.

"It's a win-win situation for all involved," Conway said. "You can clean out your closet and put some money in your closet.

"There are always people looking for a deal."

The Cents & Sensibility Consignment spring/summer sale will take place 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. today, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. There is no admission fee, and parking is free.

For more information on Cents & Sensibility, contact Conway at 724-838-8821 or . More details also can be found at .

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