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If you’re the kind of person whose idea of an awesome day involves hitting up an estate sale at the crack of dawn, driving out to a giant flea market, or scouring thrift store after thrift store, at some point or another you’ve probably thought: It would be amazing to do this for a living.
And then: HOW? Selling vintage might seem like a dream job, or even a dream side hustle. But if you don’t have any experience with retail, the whole undertaking sounds pretty overwhelming. Where do you source your stuff? How do you know what to charge? And considering how much competition there is, can you actually earn enough to make a living?
The good news is that getting started might actually be easier than you think. Opening an online vintage store doesn’t have to require tons of technical expertise. And if you stay true to your unique style and are willing to put in some legwork, you really can make it work.
In fact, plenty of shop owners who sell full-time (or close to full-time) started out with little or no experience in retail or e-commerce. They were just obsessed with vintage. "I started selling because I had so much stuff of my own, I needed to make space in my closet. Plus, I love exploring flea markets and estate sales," says Yeonhee Lee, founder of Standard Edition in Los Angeles. "It was more like a hobby that became a job."
She’s not the only one. Here’s how how Lee and five other successful vintage sellers went from casual thrifter to thriving shop owner — and how you can do the same.
I. Building Your Brand
Shape your style.
Chances are, you’ve already been buying secondhand for years. So look at the pieces you already own — even if you don’t plan on selling them — and figure out what ties them together: Maybe they’re mostly made of natural fibers, or have a similar fit-and-flare shape. Having a cohesive, curated aesthetic (and, okay, the lack of mothball smell) is what separates a vintage shop from a thrift store.
It’s also the thing that will set a shop apart from the countless others that are already out there. There are a million online vintage shops out there — so it’s essential to figure out what will make yours different from the rest. "If you can achieve that, you’ll build a base of customers who share that same vision," says Caitlin McNulty, founder of Narro in Brooklyn.
Write a plan.
A formalized business plan isn’t a must for selling vintage as a hobby, or even as an experiment to see whether it might work full-time. In fact, it’s pretty normal to feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. Most of the pros here started out selling vintage for fun (or because their closets were bursting), and didn’t know much about the business at first. "Everything was new for me, and I was sort of learning on the job," says Toni Walker, founder of Fair Season in Los Angeles.
But in order to dive right in and do this as a living, having some kind framework definitely helps. "When I decided to go full-time, I wrote a business plan with my expenses and costs. What would my cash flow look like?" says Amy Yee, founder of Maeven Vintage in Brooklyn. Her largest expense was staffing, but other costs included rent for her studio space, liability insurance, legal and other professional fees, and marketing.
At a minimum, decide how much you’ll plan to spend on inventory, plus other expenses like shipping supplies, photography equipment, models or dress forms, plus travel money for any out-of-town buying trips. There are no right or wrong answers here, as long as you predict that you’ll be able to sell enough to recoup those costs — and still turn a profit.
II. Sourcing Your Stuff
Go beyond the neighborhood thrift shop.
Sure, the local Savers or Goodwill might have a rogue gem or two, especially vintage from the ‘80s or ‘90s. But if you’re trying to stock up on more than just a handful of pieces, branching out is a must. Walker, for instance, built up her initial inventory by scouring estate sales in the Midwest.
If you live in a bigger town or city, take a day or weekend trip to a more rural, less populated area, where the thrift stores are less likely to be picked over. "My boyfriend and I travel, and we’re always at random thrift stores in small towns," says Sara Gelston, founder of Grammar Company in Indianapolis. And put the word out that you’re interested in acquiring vintage pieces. Established shop owners often buy directly from individuals looking to sell a private collection.
No matter what, don’t get discouraged. There’s no secret formula for finding great vintage — and there’s plenty of stuff out there waiting to be scooped up. You just have to be willing to put in the legwork. "Sourcing was a big worry of mine. I’d worry that supply would run out, or about how I’d grow without having secret sources," Yee says. "But sourcing has remained the same for me. And I don’t think there is some secret."
Don’t invest tons of money at first.
Like with any indie venture, it’s a good idea to start small and keep your expectations realistic. Dropping tons of cash on inventory might feel exciting, but it could take a while to recoup those losses when a shop is brand new. "It took about six months to find a steady customer base, which was longer than I thought," says Lee.
Most vintage sellers began selling from personal collections, which let them feel out the business without having to spend a lot. "My collection was so big and I wasn’t wearing all of it," McNulty says. "So it generated its own capital in the beginning, and there wasn’t that much investment."
Treat your garments right.
Customers are more likely to buy a piece when it looks clean and wrinkle-free, and they’re more likely to leave a positive shop review (or less likely to hassle you about a return) if the item they buy doesn’t have a weird smell or stain. So take time to wash and iron or steam garments before snapping any pictures.
"You want to present it like it’s a new piece," says McNulty, who makes sure to launder and steam every piece before it goes up for sale. For very old items or delicate fabrics, research the best way to clean them. That ‘60s crochet sundress probably won’t hold up well in the washing machine. Make sure all of the garment’s seams, buttons, and closures are intact, too. "That way the customer can immediately incorporate the item into their wardrobe," McNulty says.
Finally, make an effort to store your garments thoughtfully, either on racks or in storage bins. McNulty organizes her items by type of clothing, and within those, by color or material. That makes it easy to keep track of your current inventory, and pull pieces when they do sell.
III. Setting Up Shop
Showcase the goods.
Using models, a mannequin or dress form, or even a simple hanger all work. What matters is that your styling is consistent. And, yes, pretty. "I see a lot of shops that have some similar things that I do, but they’re draping the clothes over the back of a closet door," Gelston says. If you wouldn’t want to buy a piece based on your photos, chances are, neither will a customer.
Of course, even with great styling skills, nothing screams amateur like a fuzzy photo that looks like it was snapped with a flip phone. Consider investing in a decent DSLR camera and good lighting equipment (used gear in good condition is fine!) or borrow from a friend. "I underestimated the technical aspect and probably didn’t research the right equipment, so in the beginning my photos were uneven and unflattering," McNulty says.
Finally, remember: Vintage sizes are almost meaningless today. "So much of the confusion, from my experience, has come from a customer who’s used to shopping with a modern size, which is always different than a vintage size," Walker says. Posting accurate measurements of garments up front means spending less time answering customer emails about fit questions, or having a customer want to make a return because a garment they bought didn’t fit they way they expected.
Sell through a third-party vendor.
Compared to building out a website from scratch, setting up a shop on Etsy isn’t just simple and cheap. It also makes it infinitely easier to connect with potential customers. Though Yee and McNulty have launched their own sites, they continue to sell on Etsy. "These marketplaces have a reach I can’t compete with, including international customers. And you can set up a shop over the course of a weekend to do a test run," Yee says.
No, it’s not perfect. Etsy charges a $.20 fee for each item listed. And for every item sold, they charge a 3.5% transaction fee and another 3% + $.25 payment processing fee. Plus, aside from a logo, you don’t have much control over the way your shop looks. But the majority of sellers agree that those cons are far outweighed by the pros in the beginning. "You have nothing to lose but the time you invest in it," Yee says.
Price it right.
Established sellers with seriously swanky clientele aside, it might be pretty tough to find a home for a $400 denim jacket with holes in it. But selling items for too little ($10 cashmere sweater, anyone?) can make it harder to climb out of the red.
To find that pricing sweet spot, do your research, sellers say. "I price according to what the market would dictate for an item or brand. You need to have a sense of that, to know whether you can make a profit. It’s just something that comes with doing," Yee says. Of course, building up pricing know-how doesn’t just come from selling vintage. Chances are, if you’re a dedicated vintage shopper, you already have a sense about prices that seem fair versus ones that seem too low — or totally outrageous.
IV. Spreading the Word
Get on Instagram, ASAP.
For a lot of sellers, Instagram is key for growing their customer base. "It’s everything. It’s such a great tool to brand yourself and teach your customers about what you do," says Masha Poloskova, founder of Garment Modern + Vintage in Austin. She’ll spend up to two hours a day on the platform, and sells at least one item daily from an Instagram post.
But pieces aren’t the only things worth posting. Any kind of image — from a desert sunset to a cityscape to a still from a classic movie — can create a feeling that shows customers what a shop is all about. "They’re all things that, for me, work toward this idea of branding, and the grand idea of Grammar," says Gelston about her shop’s ‘90s-inspired feed.
Branch out IRL.
Selling at the weekly flea or community holiday markets can expand a shop’s customer base — and give new sellers a chance to meet likeminded (and more seasoned) local vendors. For the first two and a half years after starting Fair Season, Walker sold at in-person markets every Saturday and Sunday. "It was like getting a master’s degree for free. So many people gave me tips and tricks of the trade, like how to price things and how to present them," she says.
These days, Walker does pop-ups at contemporary brick-and-mortar shops like LA’s Myrtle, too. "Her customer is definitely interested in vintage, so I’m bringing them something they don’t always have access to, and they can mix it with her stuff," she says.
Notice what works — and what doesn’t.
The key to having fun selling vintage is selling what you love, and what’s true to your vision. But! Tweaking a shop’s offerings based on what customers seem to be looking for doesn’t hurt. On Instagram, "you can gauge an immediate reaction to your post," Poloskova says. If the wool grandpa cardigans or printed wrap dresses you post always get tons of likes, it might be worth stocking more of those items.
Pay attention to analytics, too. Walker began selling denim at Fair Season because she loved it. But once she started looking at the search terms that customers were using to find her shop, she realized that jeans should play an even bigger role. "Denim is something I have a passion for anyway, so it was me looking at what my audience wanted and providing it," she says.
V. Moving Up
Accept the ups and downs.
Unlike a regular 9-to-5 job, selling vintage doesn’t always come with a steady paycheck. Running any kind of business comes with income fluctuations, and in retail, certain times of year are just busier than others. "The holiday season tends to yield more sales, and I also have a lot of sales in March and April," Lee says. "But June through August usually doesn’t do well."
The key to weathering the inevitable quiet periods is to be prepared. The more you count on your shop as a source of income, the more savings you should have socked away to keep you afloat for when sales slow down. When Yee quit her day job as an art gallery director in 2008, she had socked away enough money to live off of for an entire year.
Go with what feels right.
For most sellers, the jump from selling part-time to full-time, or moving from Etsy to their own e-commerce site, was a slow, organic process. Lee ran Standard Edition as a side gig for six years before making it her full-time job, and Gelston, who opened Grammar in May of 2016, still supplements her income with freelance writing jobs. After being on Etsy since 2010, Walker is currently in the process of launching Fair Season’s e-commerce site. (Her current e-commerce site still makes sales through Etsy.)
In other words, growth takes time. So go with your gut, and don’t rush it. "You’ll get where you want to go quicker by doing what makes sense to you and what speaks to you," says Yee.