Stephanie Edwards-Musa finished her Christmas shopping early this year. Her 13-year-old daughter is getting a PlayStation 2 and clothing from Hollister and Aeropostale. For her 5-year-old son, it's a bundle of toys, mostly Star Wars-themed.
The bill? $45.
Edwards-Musa, a Houston Realtor, found these items used on ThredUp.com, an online toy exchange that launched last week. Parent-to-parent swapping sites like this one, growing in popularity, offer families a way to clear their closets of toys and clothes their children have outgrown in exchange for items cast off by older kids.
"I've always been frugal," she said, "but the PlayStation was my best Friday doorbuster yet."
Thrifty parents are finding plenty of places to barter on the Web. At the online community SwapMamas.com, hip moms trade goods from baby slings to clarinets without any money changing hands. Swap-seekers place hundreds of listings a day on classifieds service Craigslist.org, while parents just looking for freebies gravitate to the local forums on Freecycle.org.
ThredUp CEO James Reinhart says the site has benefited from middle-income Americans' heightened frugality; its membership, now at 50,000, has grown steadily since it debuted with clothing only in April.
The fallout from the recession still has many parents struggling to balance the imperative to spend less with the desire to give their kids the things they want, especially during the holidays.
Even in hard times, "parents still want to do whatever it takes to create magic for their kids on Christmas and give them that pleasure," said toy analyst Chris Byrne — one reason toy sales have held steady over the past few years while other categories fell.
Of course, many parents unload their kids' outgrown goods the old-fashioned — and most eco-friendly — way: by handing them down to friends and family.
Still, the secondhand market for children's clothes and toys generates $3 billion in sales annually. ThredUp's investors, led by Silicon Valley's Trinity Ventures, hope the startup can carve out a sizable chunk.
To facilitate a swap, ThredUp provides a flat-rate shipping box a parent can fill with giveaways. The donor lists the contents of the box on the site, where the bundles are organized by age and gender. To claim a box, a user pays $5 to ThredUp plus $10.70 for shipping, and ThredUp e-mails the sender a prepaid shipping label. Members rate each other based on the quality of the stuff they receive.
Jill Snowden, a mother in Contra Costa County, Calif., was never big on consignment shops. When she started noticing discarded baby paraphernalia piling up in her home, she searched the Web for a way to declutter.
"I listed a bunch of boxes and when they started getting picked and getting good reviews, I got kind of addicted," Snowden says.
ThredUp users are quick to point out it's not an anonymous marketplace but a community. On the site's Facebook page, members share pictures and make special requests like "any toys with a ladybug theme." For Snowden, a first-time mother, the camaraderie is as enticing as the dirt-cheap stuff.
"I can ask, 'What toys is my baby going to want when she's 2,' and I get a lot of really helpful responses," she said. "These are like-minded people with their own kids, and I trust them."