Selling Used Stuff: A $9 Billion Market

Stores that sell used stuff — second-hand clothes, old records, antiques, and other vintage items — did $9 billion in business in 2007. That’s according to numbers released today by the Economic Census. The space grew by almost 20% ($1.5 billion) in the five years since the previous Economic Census in 2002. (The figures exclude used vehicle sales.)

Think about that for a second — that’s $9 billion of value created on the secondary market, much of it out of stuff that many people would just throw out. That’s also measuring only retail businesses with employees, so add in self-employed eBay sellers and I’m sure the number gets much bigger. How many entrepreneurs have built thriving businesses from second-hand stuff, salvaging their supplies from garage and estate sales, hunting curbs on trash night for vintage furniture, buying collections of records and books? There were 17,779 employer businesses in this space in 2007, actually down slightly from 2002. They employed 131,000 people and had payrolls over $2 billion.

I’m guessing we’ll see more growth in the second-hand market for a few reasons:

1) The Internet makes it easier for resellers to connect with their suppliers, i.e., people getting rid of old stuff. 2) More people are shopping at thrift store and the like because of the recession — to the point where some stores are running low on inventory. 3) The mainstreaming of the conservation movement is also encouraging more people to shop for used (as well as hand-made, local, etc.) clothes and other household items.

This is one of the earliest releases from the 2007 Economic Census, so we can’t compare growth in this space to the broader retail sector yet. It’s a tiny piece to be sure, but it looks like second-hand retail businesses are, at least right now, positioned pretty well compared to other stores. Here’s a link to the Census data, and below is the official Census definition of this industry:

This industry group comprises establishments primarily engaged in retailing used merchandise, antiques, and secondhand goods (except motor vehicles, such as automobiles, RVs, motorcycles, and boats; motor vehicle parts; tires; and mobile homes).

One more detail from the Census release: Women’s and kids’ clothes made up more than 15 percent of this market (didn’t say what percent was men’s clothing), and antiques accounted for 13 percent.

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