Ultimate Guide: What Is a Consignment Shop?

View of light coming in the windows of a busy consignment shop

While “consignment shop” and “thrift shop” are often used interchangeably, these secondhand retail experiences have distinct differences.

As the resell market continues to thrive, it’s projected to nearly double by 2027. This growth offers increased opportunities for folks seeking to refresh their wardrobe or explore the reselling market through consignment and thrift shopping. 

From sustainable practices to curated selections, consignment shops offer a different shopping experience that appeals to those seeking both style and conscious consumption.

So, what exactly is a consignment shop? And how does it differ from traditional thrift stores?

As someone deeply entrenched in the vintage and resale market, I have first-hand experience navigating this terrain. We’ve curated some of the most-asked questions around consignment shopping, shedding light on their unique characteristics and why they’ve become a popular choice for shoppers and fashion enthusiasts!

Whether you’re a fashionista, an eco-conscious shopper, or someone interested in exploring the resale market, consignment shops provide an exciting avenue to discover hidden treasures while making a positive impact.

Everything You Need To Know About Consignment Shops

What’s the history of consignment shops?

I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible! After the Industrial Revolution made clothing more widely available (thus, cheaper), people began treating clothing as disposable. As such, Jewish immigrants in the U.S. saw an opportunity and started selling secondhand clothing out of pushcarts

While the idea wasn’t exactly popular at the time (people associated secondhand goods with poverty and anti-Semitism was rampant), it wasn’t until Christian organizations began using it as a way to raise funds that the idea gained some legitimacy. 

The concept of consignment shops soon gained momentum during the Great Depression as more people sought ways to make a little extra cash by selling their unwanted goods. At the same time, budget-conscious shoppers were ready and willing to find affordable items. Consignment shops soon emerged as a solution — bridging the gap between sellers and buyers.

Consignment shops have evolved and adapted to changing consumer demands throughout the years — diversifying their offerings beyond clothing to include furniture, accessories, household items, books, and more. 

The appeal of consignment shopping expanded even more as people recognized the environmental benefits of recycling and reducing waste.

In recent years, the rise of online consignment platforms (think: TheRealReal and thredUp) has made this practice more accessible than ever — allowing sellers to reach a global audience from the comfort of their own homes.

Where does the word “consignment” originate from? 

The term “consignment” comes from the Latin word “consignare,” meaning “to seal” or “to hand over.” 

Simply put, it’s when someone hands over their items to another person to sell for them. The person who hands over these items is called the consignor, and the person (or business) who receives and sells said items is called the consignee.

The consignor still owns the items until they are sold, and the consignee helps sell them to others. 

The term “consignment” has evolved and expanded throughout the years, finding its way into industries like fashion, art, antiques, and even car sales. 

Consignment stores vs. thrift stores

Consignment and thrift stores differ in ownership, quality, pricing, and how profits are distributed. 

In consignment stores, the items you see displayed belong to people who entrusted the store to sell on their behalf. The original owners (the consignors) receive a portion of the proceeds when and if their items are sold. 

Thrift stores, on the other hand, sell donated items, and the store owns those items. The proceeds made often support social causes or local nonprofit organizations.

Quality-wise, consignment stores typically focus on higher-quality and gently used pieces that meet specific standards set by the store — making prices generally higher because the items are usually in better condition, higher in value, or from premium brands. 

In contrast, thrift stores offer a wider range of goods, including both high and low-quality items, and their prices are typically lower since these pieces are donated and may vary in condition or demand.

Ultimately, the choice between consignment stores and thrift stores depends on personal preferences and shopping goals. 

Consignment stores offer curated selections with potentially higher-quality items, while thrift stores provide a broader range of items at lower prices for frugal shoppers. Both options offer are typically good for our wallets and the planet — so we call that a win-win! 

How do consignment shops work? 

Consignment shops are basically partnerships between the shop owner (consignee) and individuals (consignors) who provide items for sale. The process typically begins when a person interested in selling their items brings them to the consignment shop. 

Items can include anything from clothing, accessories, furniture, artwork, and more. The consignment shop then evaluates the items’ condition, quality, and marketability. If it meets the shop’s criteria, both parties enter into a consignment agreement that outlines the terms of the partnership (varies by shop, so be sure you read the terms).

Once the agreement is made, the consignment shop takes care of preparing the items for sale. This can include cleaning, repairing, or styling the items to enhance their marketability to potential buyers. 

The items are then displayed in the consignment shop — either in-store or online — with prices set by the shop owner based on factors such as the item’s condition, brand, and demand. The consignment shop handles the marketing and selling of the products.

When an item sells, the consignment shop keeps a portion of the sale price as a commission or fee for their services. The remaining amount is paid to the consignor. 

What are the benefits of shopping at a consignment shop?

Aside from the thrill of finding rare, one-of-a-kind pieces, the benefits of shopping at a consignment shop go beyond that.

Environmentally Friendly

In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that out of 17 million tons of textiles generated, only two million tons were recycled — while the rest ended up in landfills or incinerated. 

Clothing is the primary contributor to municipal solid waste, followed by items like carpets and furniture. Supporting consignment shops is crucial to combat this issue, as it helps extend the lifespan of existing items and reduces the reliance on fast fashion brands known for their high volumes of output of low-quality garments (oh, and let’s not forget their human rights violations…).

By opting for consignment shopping, mindful consumers actively contribute to sustainability and eco-friendly practices, promoting a circular economy and minimizing environmental impact by giving pre-loved items a new lease on life.

Higher-quality Products

Consignment shops typically prioritize quality, ensuring that the items for sale are in good condition and well-maintained. By upholding these standards, they offer gently used merchandise for shoppers to discover high-quality items at a fraction of their original price.

With this kind of selective nature, consignment shop owners and staff often offer personalized service and expertise — oftentimes having extensive knowledge about the products — enabling them to provide tailored recommendations, styling tips, and insights into the unique pieces they carry. 

Support Local Businesses & Neighbors

Consignment shopping is a powerful way to show a little love to local businesses and neighbors in your community. When you buy from consignment shops, you’re not just snagging great (often highly curated) pieces, but you’re also lending a helping hand to independent shop owners and local resellers. It’s a win-win situation that not only boosts the local economy but also creates a warm sense of community. We love to see that!

How are prices determined?

Folks (for good reason) are often curious about how those price tags on display items are determined. For the most part, the pricing of items in consignment shops considers: the brand of the item, its condition, the original retail value, and even the current market demand. Together, these factors contribute to the overall price of the item. 

What happens if my item doesn’t sell?

It happens! The fate of unsold items varies depending on the consignment shop’s policies. Some shops offer the opportunity to renew the consignment period, granting the item a second chance to be rehomed. By extending the duration, the shop continues to display and promote your item.

In other cases, consignment shops may have protocols in place that require them to return unsold items to the original owner. This is when owners can explore alternative avenues — like online reselling.

It’s important to note that the specific approach to unsold items can differ between consignment shops. Therefore, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with the shop’s policies where you have consigned your item.

Are consignment shops reliable for finding authentic items?

Consignment shops are often reliable sources for finding authentic items. One of the advantages of consignment shopping is that these stores typically have thorough processes in place to authenticate the items they accept. 

Authenticity verification varies from shop to shop, but reputable consignment stores employ trained staff who are knowledgeable about brands, materials, and authentication techniques. 

However, it’s generally a good idea for shoppers to know a little bit about the brands (especially luxury brands) they are interested in buying and be vigilant when examining the quality, craftsmanship, and details of the items.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean to buy on consignment?

To buy on consignment means to purchase an item that is owned by someone else but is being sold through a third-party seller (known as the consignee). 

When you buy on consignment, you are typically purchasing pre-owned or secondhand goods. These items are usually in good condition and have been evaluated and accepted by the consignee based on specific quality standards. Common items sold on consignment include clothing, accessories, furniture, artwork, and antiques.

Is consignment the same as thrifting?

Consignment and thrifting are not the same. Though they share similarities (both involve buying secondhand items), they have distinct differences. 

Thrift stores primarily rely on donations, meaning the items are given to the store without any direct payment to the original owner. On the other hand, consignment shops work by compensating the original owner when their item successfully sells.

Overall, people may choose between consignment and thrifting based on factors like budget, desired shopping experience, and preference for curated items or a diverse selection.

Why do people buy from consignment stores?

Savvy eco-conscious shoppers often opt for consignment stores instead of conventional clothing retailers for many reasons but the advantage it brings them is the satisfaction of making sustainable fashion choices and the opportunity to snag fashionable clothing pieces at discounted prices.

What types of items can I find in a consignment shop?

Consignment shops are treasure troves of diverse and delightful finds. From clothing and accessories to home decor, furniture, books, electronics, and even unique collectibles, consignment shops offer a fun assortment of pre-loved treasures.

What is the condition of the items sold?

The items sold in consignment shops generally fall into the category of “gently used.” This typically means that they have been previously owned or worn but are still in good condition and have plenty of life left in them. 

Consignment shops are distinct in that they prioritize quality and carefully curate their inventory, ensuring that the items they accept for sale meet specific standards.

While the exact condition of the items may vary from shop to shop and from item to item, you can generally expect to find items in good condition, without major flaws or defects.

Article Details

September 28, 2023 3:24 PM
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