Retailers from Gap to Urban Outfitters are already struggling to persuade consumers to pay full price for clothes. Now, it turns out, many of their younger customers prefer trading T-shirts, jeans and designer dresses among themselves than actually buying new gear.
Clothing swaps are a hot ticket for Americans ages 18 to 34. Millennials attend swap house parties from New York to San Francisco. And they gather online, frequenting such sites as Swapstyle.com, which has swelled to more than 55,000 members since its 2002 founding.
Frugality has become a way of life for a cohort weighed down by student-loan debt and high joblessness, according to WSL Strategic Retail. In a WSL survey, 80 percent of respondents ages 18 to 34 said it was key to get the lowest price on most things they buy, up from 69 percent two years earlier and the only change among the three age groups surveyed.
"They can stay engaged in fashion without getting themselves in more debt," Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of New York-based WSL, said in a telephone interview. "This generation has also grown up in an online world of Craigslist and EBay, where selling something or swapping something has become somewhat second nature."
The surge in apparel bartering comes as retailers struggle to woo young customers. While consumer spending rose in March, gasoline prices have held at more than $3.80 per gallon for more than a month and the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent. That's cutting discretionary spending for the newest members of the workforce.
Event-listing website Meet-up.com features apparel-exchange groups with hundreds of members, including the Washington D.C. Clothing Swap Society, the Five Boroughs Clothing Swap and the Frugal Fashionista's Clothing Swap Group. The websites Evite and Etsy provide invitation templates for hosting swap parties.
"People are saying, 'I can at least figure out another way to look like I'm wearing something new and fresh without spending top dollar on it, or waiting for it to go on sale and not being able to find my size,' " said Alison Paul, who leads the retail group at Deloitte in Chicago.
Emily Weidner, a 29-year-old who works for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, has hosted multiple clothing swap parties. She consciously tries to limit the amount of money she spends on apparel.
"I've been trying to aggressively pay off student loans from undergrad and grad school," said Weidner. "I've heard a lot more about people being interested in participating in clothing swaps, and I've been invited to a number of them.
Frugal shoppers also are downloading Poshmark, an iPhone app introduced in December that hosts real-time shopping events for members to buy and sell clothes from their closets. Poshmark lets users follow others with similar taste, such as "animal prints" or "Marc Jacobs."
Hannah Cole-Chu, a 25-year-old in Washington who is in between jobs, has been attending clothing swaps and once came away with an oft-used Coach purse that she "loves." Cole-Chu doesn't frequent the mall, where it's frustratingly common to see "a little tank top for $40."
Clothing swaps offer "a more personal experience than going into a store," she said.