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Finding the perfect dress for my rehearsal dinner was easy; learning that it was sold out was hard. But that wouldn’t stop me. As I scoured Google for the Renata Sheath from BHLDN — an embroidered, beaded dress with an illusion neckline and low back — I found myself someplace unexpected: Facebook. Specifically a Buy-Sell-Trade (BST) group dedicated to Anthropologie’s wedding line.
Unfamiliar with groups like these, I poked around a bit. Soon enough, I’d joined countless others: Anthropologie, Free People, ModCloth, Madewell, Lululemon. I became fascinated by them.
Most groups are private, and some are secret. Many have shockingly strict rules. (I ended up getting kicked out of one, in fact. More on that later.)
People have been using BST groups for years. But when Facebook added the “sell” button as a feature in 2015, it streamlined the process for buying and selling items, and created a whole new world for shoppers.
Several of the larger apparel groups, including the Lululemon one, have over 50,000 members. Some designer handbag and shoe brands also have sizable communities. The largest Louis Vuitton BST group has over 130,000 members, while the largest Yeezy BST group has almost 190,000.
All of the moderators and administrators who run the groups are volunteers. And the community-minded nature of some members is almost startling. A woman once posted that she saw a handful of one of Anthropologie’s highly desirable dresses on sale at her local T.J. Maxx, and wanted to know if anyone would like her to pick one up and mail it to them.
But most surprising about BST groups is the way many items sell for close to what they cost full price, even if they’ve been worn. This isn’t a place to make an extra $10 or $15. For someone with a closet full of nice, lightly worn clothes, it’s a place to make thousands.
After joining the largest Anthropologie BST group and stalking for a bit, I decided to sell eight of my most unique dresses. I listed them, and labeled many of them as unicorns, a term used for rare, desirable pieces of clothing. I sold seven within two days, and made a little over $500. Over the course of the next year, I would go on to sell countless items of clothing, totaling nearly $2,000.
Each group has items that are almost guaranteed to sell. For Anthropologie, it’s rare, unique dresses. For Free People, it’s certain long-sleeved thermals, like the Lacuna. For Lululemon, it’s certain iterations of the Scuba Hoodie.
Not only do BST groups offer the chance to make a pretty penny on used clothes, they also allow users to buy that one dress they saw on display years ago but never bought, or the chance to purchase an item otherwise outside of their budget. “I think my biggest wins have been finding items I’ve really been wanting, but didn’t want to pay full price for,” says Meryem Cocciardi, a member of the Anthropologie BST group.
“I found my first unicorn due to the BST,” says Kimberley Cauthen, a member of the ModCloth BST group. She had been a member of the group for about four months, and had been in search of ModCloth’s “Sew It Would Seamstress” dress, which has a comic book print, almost the entire time. “I believe when it popped up, my best friend/sister-in-law tagged me in the post, then texted me, then called me to be sure I saw it.”
Many BST groups have strict rules enforced by admins who monitor the groups without receiving a penny. So why do they put in so many hours?
Jayme Tres Waldt says she and a friend created the BHLDN group because they wished they’d had a similar resource when they were getting married.
Katie Luk, who founded a J.Crew and Madewell BST group, says that after the original group shut down a few years ago, she created a new one. “It was a completely selfish reason,” she says. “I became a stay-at-home mom, and I had all of these clothes I needed to get rid of and sell that I just didn’t use anymore.”
Kelsea Esparza, who co-founded the largest ModCloth BST group, which has around 15,000 members, says she also created her group because she had clothing to sell. (Her group allows anything with the overall ModCloth aesthetic, so she sells vintage clothing from her side business, too.) “I’m prompted to maintain it and help it grow because I use it for my vintage clothing,” Esparza says. “It’s almost a selfish purpose, I’m not going to lie.”
From group to group, the intensity and enforcement of the rules varies. Many groups have rules longer than this article. Others have four or five simple policies. Common rules include no bartering in the comments section (via private message only), no linking to items on eBay, and that you must post a photo of the item IRL in addition to any stock photos. The larger groups appear to have much stricter rules (likely because they need to), while the smaller groups tend to be more laid back.
“It’s sad, but people do take advantage of other people,” Luk says. “You just want to have all [the rules] laid out beforehand.”
I got kicked out of the largest Anthropologie BST group for breaking two rules. The first rule I broke was posting a dress without the stock photo because I couldn’t find it. The dress wasn’t from one of the “approved” Anthropologie brands that can be posted without a stock photo. (Some brands, such as Maeve and Byron Lars, are approved to be posted without a stock photo because they’re almost exclusively sold at Anthropologie.) The admin told me to delete the item, which was Strike One.
A few months later, I posted that I was in search of Needle & Thread brand dresses to buy. This activity is allowed on other groups I’m part of, so I didn’t realize I broke the second rule until I logged in on my mom’s Facebook account, and re-read the lengthy set of rules.
I messaged an admin asking if I could be re-added to the group. I got no reply, and then the admin blocked me from the group.
Esparza says her group’s rules are fairly relaxed — they allow posting what you’re in search of, for example — but she herself has been kicked out of groups, and has seen groups with bureaucratic levels of rule enforcement.
“I’ve been in vintage [BST] groups where there is literally an Excel spreadsheet of 30 rules you have to follow, and any infraction gets you removed,” Esparza says. “And then they keep documentation on every infraction you’ve done… The rules can be kind of crazy in some groups.”
When I reached out to a handful of Lululemon admins asking if they’d be interested in speaking to me for a story on BST groups, I didn’t hear back. Thinking nothing of it, I contacted a few more. Finally, one replied with: “You’ve already messaged other admins. Answer is still no.” I kindly asked if I had somehow crossed a line or if there was a rule against media requests and never heard back.
Why are people choosing to buy and sell their items on Facebook instead of more established platforms like eBay or Poshmark? Why are these particular shoppers increasingly opting for that button most of us accidently click on when we’re checking our notifications?
Lower fees are a huge reason. Most transactions on Facebook BST groups are done through PayPal, which takes 2.9 percent, compared to 8 percent from eBay and up to 20 percent from Poshmark.
“If I’m going to sell something for $10, it’s not worth my time to get $5 out of the transaction,” Luk says, adding that trust between users also plays a huge role. “After you buy three things and they’re as described and they’re fast and you’re not dealing with a transaction gone wrong, you know you can trust that person.”
Randalyn Bailey — a member of the Anthropologie, Spell & the Gypsy, and Free People BST group — likes the transparency of it. “It’s so easy to communicate and see the profile of those buying from you,” she says.
It’s unclear how brands feel about these groups. (Lululemon declined to comment on this article; other brands didn’t reply to request for comment.) Most groups have a disclaimer that they’re not associated with the brands. On some groups, members will sell an item they just bought that’s sold out online (sometimes for more than retail) or an item that’s beyond the window for returns but still has tags, which could mean the BST groups lead to fewer transactions through the brand itself.
ModCloth appears to support BST groups. The brand occasionally has a Stylish Surprise in which shoppers pay a certain amount of money and get a mystery item (for example, $20 for any dress in their size). ModCloth’s Facebook page has directed shoppers interested in trading items to BST groups, Esparza says.
There’s an art to this kind of buying and selling, and experience helps. After following these groups for a while, you come to learn which items are likely to sell at a high price. You also become more comfortable buying certain items with the knowledge you can likely resell them. Buyers don’t know what sellers paid for items, so if you get an excellent deal on something, you might even be able to resell it for more than you paid.
I didn’t end up finding the BHLDN dress, which was $500, on the BST Facebook group. But it did come back in stock in my size a few weeks later. Now I have it for sale on the BST group for $175. But what I paid for it (hint: It was on sale) will remain a secret.