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With money tight, no-cash swapping is back in fashion

Frances Wood, left, and Sarah Hanks hunt for free used clothing at a swap event sponsored by Brooklyn Clothing Exchange in New York. The age-old practice is experiencing a surge in popularity as discretionary spending gets tighter.

Associated Press

Frances Wood, left, and Sarah Hanks hunt for free used clothing at a swap event sponsored by Brooklyn Clothing Exchange in New York. The age-old practice is experiencing a surge in popularity as discretionary spending gets tighter.


The turtleneck from designer Marc Jacobs costs hundreds of dollars at Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. But at one Brooklyn bar, the charcoal-gray sweater was free for the taking — along with jeans, belts and shoes.

The neighborhood watering hole called Sycamore will never be mistaken for a department store, but for some recession-battered consumers, it's serving a similar purpose. It's a chance to update their wardrobes and capture the adventure of shopping without having to open their wallets.

"It's guilt-free shopping," said Shannon McDowell, a bartender and swapper.

Friends have been trading among themselves as long as parents have been handing down outgrown baby clothes. Now, with some help from the Internet, swaps among strangers are cropping up in bars, schools, garages and churches across the United States.

The rules are simple: You bring something before you take something, and money never changes hands.

Some swaps are formal affairs, where items are passed along and tried on. If more than one participant is interested, the group votes on whom it looks best. Others, like the one at the Sycamore, are more casual: Everyone just digs through piles for what they want. Leftovers are generally donated to charity.

The popularity comes as Americans from every tax bracket are cutting back how much they spend at stores. Apparel sales declined 10.1 percent in the first three months of the year. Impulse buying, which represents more than a quarter of the fashion business, "is just not there at all," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group.

Swapping, it turns out, is one substitute for shopping. And it's not just clothes. People are trading DVDs, books, toys and even house plants and garden seeds.

"People are naturally resourceful," said Anneli Rufus, co-author of the book The Scavengers' Manifesto, a guide to acquiring things for less. "At first, they are scared and shocked. But then, thank gosh, people are getting less ashamed in doing this."

Though the bartering has been around forever, many events are being organized with help from modern technology.

Meetup.com, a Web site that helps users organize local groups for people with common interests, has 42 clothing swap groups, up from 13 a year ago. The groups, which cost organizers $12 a month to maintain, have more than 4,500 members, up from 1,200 a year ago.

While many swaps are organized between friends and neighbors, Web sites like Swaptree.com and Paperbackswap.com help people trade old CDs, books and video games online. Totsswapshop.com, meanwhile, connects people who want to trade kids' items from clothes to nursery furniture.

Aimee Gallagher, a mother of three young children, turned to Swaptree after cutting back on frivolous spending.

"I used to take the kids just to entertain them to Borders, let them walk around, (and) I'd get a coffee, buy a couple of books," she said, speaking from her home in Rosemont, Pa. "I don't do that anymore."

Instead, she lists on Swaptree the items she wants to give away, and the things she wants. Two- or even three-way swaps are created. She pays for shipping the items she sends.

Swaps that take place over the Web and mail lose some of the fun of the real thing.

At a swap organized by the Brooklyn Clothing Exchange, Frances Wood likened the experience to a treasure hunt as she sorted through a pile of folded clothes with about two dozen other swappers on a rainy Sunday afternoon. She found and took home items she'd never buy at a store.

"When you are not paying for something, you are a little more free," Wood, the administrator of a non-profit said.

Kym O'Neill, a mother of two who bought a few expensive items to the Brooklyn swap at Sycamore, said it was "time to get rid of old things." She is going through a divorce. One particular dress, by Vena Cava that she wore only once, to a wedding, was one such item. She got it after having her second child, and has lost weight since.

"I was like, should I put it on eBay, get money for it?" she said.

In the end she brought it to the swap, hoping somebody would appreciate it. The dress fit McDowell, the bartender, perfectly.

In turn, O'Neill ended up with the gray Marc Jacobs turtleneck. As the afternoon turned chilly, she pulled it on.

"I'm glad it found a home," original owner Ashley Lahoud said. "The sweater looks really good on you."

With money tight, no-cash swapping is back in fashion 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 4:31am]
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