The Secret Way People Buy and Sell Secondhand Clothes | BoF Professional, News & Analysis


Gissel Rios is on the hunt for a coat.

Specifically, she’s after the Elizabeth Suzann wool “cocoon” coat. It won’t be easy to find: the Nashville-based brand closed during the pandemic, and rarely surfaces on resale sites like Poshmark or The RealReal.

Her last, best hope: Instagram accounts like Noihsaf.Bazaar and Sell/Trade Slow Fashion, which posts pre-worn items by small, sustainable brands such as Babaà, Ilana Kohn and yes, Elizabeth Suzann. Should the elusive cocoon coat surface, Rios can post a comment indicating her interest and, assuming she beats out tens of thousands of other potential buyers, wait for the seller to send a direct message to arrange shipping and payment.

This way of shopping is, in some respects, a return to the earliest days of e-commerce, predating Poshmark and even eBay, when online shopping was more like a treasure hunt, and transactions relied on good faith on the part of buyer and seller.

While accounts like Noihsaf — that’s “fashion” spelled backward — have existed for years, they are growing faster than ever thanks to heightened social media usage fuelled by the pandemic. The appeal is undeniable: prices are cheaper because there’s little commission involved. Like-minded shoppers quickly form into tight-knit communities, and while it can take work to track down the perfect coat or bag, it’s a gentler form of commerce, followers of these accounts say.

“On Poshmark, it seems like the focus can be a lot more on thrifting and then flipping things,” said Rios, a 27-year-old grad student who recently shifted her secondhand shopping from the platform to Noihsaf. “The focus [at Noihsaf] is more on selling items that you don’t feel connected to anymore rather than selling for profit.”

How It Works

Research firm Cowen estimates that the resale and rental “recommerce market” reached 14 percent of the total fashion market last year, versus 7 percent in 2019.

Next to resale giants like Poshmark and The RealReal, pre-worn apparel sales through Instagram make up a tiny portion of the global secondhand market. They are growing fast though: Awoke Vintage, a chain of three secondhand stores in Brooklyn, generated about 20 percent of its sales via Instagram Stories last year, up from about 10 percent in 2019, said founder and owner Liz Power. Kate Lindello, who created Noihsaf.Bazaar and several other accounts taking a similar approach to homeware and other categories, said total transactions grew nearly 70 percent in 2020.

Stocking obscure labels can be fun and addictive. So are low prices. Noihsaf charges a flat fee of $3.80 for every item sold through the account, as opposed to taking a percentage of sales. On Noihsaf, buyers are first-come, first-serve — whoever comments their zip code on a listing first gets to buy it. On Sell/Trade Slow Fashion, winning buyers are chosen by a random number generator.

“Something about that just draws me there, the little bit of competition,” said Amanda Niello, 34, regarding Noihsaf.Bazaar. “It’s fun. I turn on notifications [for the account] so I can be one of the first people.”

Each secondhand account sets its own standards for what to sell. Sell/Trade Slow Fashion has a set list of brands it carries, while Noihsaf often rejects listings because the products are made by fast fashion companies or even mainstream luxury labels.

Buyers and sellers say they often bond over a sale, which can even turn into real-life friendships. Rios said she has connected with sellers on Noihsaf.Bazaar after seeing their email addresses and finding out they share an alma mater. One of Lindello’s first customers eventually became her child’s dentist.

“There is a huge community of women on Instagram who are into slow, ethical fashion and are conscious about how our pieces are made, not being wasteful and supporting small businesses,” said Ayana Moore, a 27-year-old freelance graphic designer based in San Jose, Calif. “That’s why pages like Noihsaf.Bazaar and Sell/Trade Slow Fashion are so popular.”

Lessons for Big Resellers

Poshmark too touts its community of “Poshers,” and encourages sellers to attend meet-ups and comment on each other’s posts.

Shoppers who frequent the Instagram accounts say they feel the communities that form there are more organic, in part because selling to strangers requires a degree of trust. Many of the sites also are built around ethical consumption or sustainability, so buyers and sellers share common interests.

Big resale websites promise buyers their money back if a product is counterfeit and protect the entire transactional process to make sure sellers mail out what they sold. On these accounts, however, the only recourse against counterfeits and no-payment buyers is banning them on Instagram.

“This [culture] came from the blogger world before Instagram,” Lindello said. “I had a blog and there was a group of us who were focused on independent designers … we were into boutiques like Totokaelo and [Portland-based] Francis May, and we were never into fast fashion or luxury.”

Lindello is in the process of rolling out a separate e-commerce marketplace for Noihsaf, one that would no longer be reliant on Instagram but still leverage the community that lives in the social media network. She has a solid customer base to work with: her accounts receive 3 million unique impressions per week, according to Lindello.

Brands can learn from the community that Lindello has built, said Meredith Fineman, an author, publicist and resale aficionado who dedicated a newsletter and a podcast to the topic. Companies like Poshmark and The RealReal can look at user interactions on accounts such as Noihsaf.Bazaar and encourage community-building within their own base of sellers and buyers. Instead of promoting products alone, they could highlight individual members of their seller community, for instance — something that Depop has excelled in.

“People want to know where their stuff is coming from” Fineman said, especially if that stuff used to be owned by someone who can be their friend.

Resale platforms could also encourage and even incentivise user interaction by creating forums around niche interests, such as slow fashion or tips for living a more sustainable lifestyle. Most resale sites discourage users from facilitating transactions outside the platform, but encouraging more private, one-on-one communication will serve as a customer loyalty tool over time.

“People really want connections,” Fineman said. “So if you could connect over something that feels like a fun secret, a little community, that feeling is rad.”

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