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Thrift stores and ’90s fashion are so in, they’re disrupting traditional retailers

With ′90s style trending and the environment on their minds, teens and 20-somethings have a growing appetite for secondhand clothes.
Alessandro Cocozza, co-owner of World Thrift, 5282 Seminole Blvd., near the border of Seminole and St. Petersburg, chats with customer Emily Coleman, 23. Coleman sold and traded several pieces of clothing and shoes at the shop. "I love the clothing pieces that are hard to find and you only see one in the shop," Coleman said. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
Alessandro Cocozza, co-owner of World Thrift, 5282 Seminole Blvd., near the border of Seminole and St. Petersburg, chats with customer Emily Coleman, 23. Coleman sold and traded several pieces of clothing and shoes at the shop. "I love the clothing pieces that are hard to find and you only see one in the shop," Coleman said. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]
Published Jan. 3

SEMINOLE — The racks are packed with graphic band tees and a sprinkling of ′90s Tommy Hilfiger, Guess and Ralph Lauren.

Childhood friends Nicholas Fanning and Alessandro Cocozza, both 27, have crafted a thoughtful inventory of used clothes in their secondhand shop at 5282 Seminole Boulevard called “World Thrift.”

The right vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt could fetch $100. Champion crewnecks from the 1990s are popular but priced modestly at $10. The sweatshirts are so in style right now, Urban Outfitters is selling remakes of the brand’s ′90s looks for upward of $60 in malls across America.

World Thrift specializes in original rock concert tees and designer labels that were popular in the 1990s, like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

What’s old is new. Fashion trends have always been circular, but young shoppers’ spending habits are so different from their parents, it’s starting to upend the clothing industry.

Thrifting is no longer just about saving money. It’s lauded by shoppers who care about the environment and want to craft their own style. That’s why the World Thrift founders thought it was time to turn their online-only business into a brick-and-mortar venture.

“It’s a liquid market," said Fanning, describing the large number of secondhand buyers and sellers growing the popularity.

World Thrift’s average shopper ranges from 14 to 34 years old, the Gen Z to millennial group that major retailers are fixated on. (One of their most loyal customers is a high schooler from Bradenton who relies on his mom to give him rides to the shop.)

Related: Is my Chanel wallet real or a superfake? What about my thrifted Dooney & Bourke bags?

Meanwhile, many mainstream retailers are struggling to stay relevant. Forever 21 has shuttered 200 stores, the Gap’s stock has been dropping, and Payless Shoes doesn’t have a location left in North America. Some traditional retailers have even started to sell used items.

Craigslist and eBay, the once-dominant online sites for used stuff, now see competition from Poshmark and ThredUp, the latter predicting the secondhand clothing market will double by 2023, to $51 billion in national sales.

But it’s not just the big players feeling the shift — traditional donation-based thrift stores are changing their strategies, too.

“It’s a whole new world for us," said Deborah Passerini, the CEO of local Goodwill Industries-Suncoast.

Erica Page, 19 and a Goodwill regular, looks over merchandise while shopping at the Goodwill 34th Street Superstore in St. Petersburg. "I like the knickknack section. I like the weird little things." [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

• • •

Taylor Hawkes, 25, arrives at South Tampa’s Sunshine Thrift with her shopping essentials: a camera and a portable tripod.

“It’s so great to be back in here,” she says, smiling wide into a camera propped up in her shopping cart. “This is my spot.”

She will later edit the video and photos to post on her YouTube channel, blog and Instagram under the name “Taylor Made Style.” Hawkes lives in Nashville but works remotely for a Tampa-based insurance company.

She turns her regular work trips to Florida into thrifting adventures for her side gig creating style content online. Plenty of Los Angeles vloggers have turned “thrift store haul” videos into a full-time job with videos that attract hundreds of thousands of views.

Hawkes’ 10,000 Instagram followers were enough to get the attention of Sunshine Thrift. The chain doesn’t just give her permission to film in its shops. It has even had her “take over” their Instagram for a day to grow the store’s online followers.

It is normal for businesses — especially retailers — to partner with social media influencers for advertisement. But for traditional thrift stores, the foray into sponsored content is a new frontier.

“It’s hard to put a success rate on these efforts but the general public, and specifically the younger generations, love it,” said Sunshine Thrift CEO Chris Pearson. “And we need them to love it for us to maintain our future.”

Hawkes takes viewers inside the dressing room to dissect her finds: maybe a dress looks like something a high-fashion label just sent down the runway, or, perhaps, a jacket is so 1980s she tells the camera, she can’t live without it.

“There was a time high school kids wouldn’t have been caught dead in here," Pearson said on a recent afternoon, leaning against a rack of $2.99 blouses.

Now, he sees them come in groups.

• • •

Hawkes noticed interest in her online thrifting content pick up at the same time plastic straws were going to the wayside. Factoids from the World Wildlife Fund — like that it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton T-shirt — are sticking with consumers looking for easy ways to limit their carbon footprint.

Related: Why millennials are filling their closets with other people's 'trash'

But it’s more than just environmental impacts drawing young shoppers to secondhand goods, said University of South Florida marketing professor Carol Osborne.

On a recent trip to London with about two dozen college students, Osborne asked the group if they regularly shopped secondhand. Nearly all of them raised their hands.

Some, she said, wanted to be able to refresh their look without spending too much — mindful of the cost of living and student loans. Many said they preferred higher quality items that are cheaper because they’re slightly used. Others liked the exclusivity of having something rare or special because it’s no longer being mass-produced.

“They like items with a story,” Osborne said, “and they don’t want to all look alike."

Chole Zentcovich, 21, regularly shopped at thrift stores as a child so her mom could save money.

“I used to hide it from everybody,” she said.

By high school, she was opening up about her thrift store finds. The very peers she once feared finding out about her secondhand outfits now engage with the Instagram page she runs chronicling thrift store shopping sprees. Whatever stigma secondhand shopping used to have attached to it has largely faded, she said.

“I never thought people would be so interested,” Zentcovich said, “as I got older it became something popular."

“Now, I thrift even more. I get into a groove and can’t stop.”

• • •

Last year, Tampa Bay’s local chain of Goodwill stores received close to 61.4 million pounds of donated items, mostly clothing, from more than 1 million people.

But not all of that clothing can be sold: some is stained, tattered, covered in mildew. What doesn’t sell is sent to a Goodwill Outlet, where it is priced low by the pound. The rejects are shipped off to textile recyclers who make rags or turn the fiber into stuffing for furniture. Some is burned.

Tampa Bay’s local Goodwill stores rely on the sales of their donated inventory to fund programs to help people find work, according to Passerini, the CEO.

Deborah Passerini, President and CEO of Goodwill Industries-Suncoast Inc., left, looks at scrubs along with Chelsea Rainer, assistant manager at the another Goodwill store. Rainer was at the 34th Street location doing off-the-clock shopping for scrubs for her fiance. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

Over the last fiscal year, Goodwill stores in Tampa Bay produced a revenue of close to $74 million. The bulk of that — about $58 million — went into job training and placement programs, according to financial records.

Passerini said she is thrilled to see thrifting pick up in popularity — the more people buying and donating from Goodwill stores supports their mission. But she has fears, too.

Madewell, a popular denim brand, started selling its refurbished secondhand pants in select stores last year. The Dillard’s at International Plaza sells secondhand vintage luxury handbags. Macy’s and J.C. Penney’s partnered with ThredUp to test having racks of secondhand clothing in their department stores.

Passerini predicts mainstream retailers will increasingly begin to pay for, or offer discounts, for their own used goods as a way to get a piece of the resale market. Over time, she said, it could mean fewer or lower quality goods making their way to the donation bins.

“I worry it’s a threat to our organization,” Passerini said. “Without all of your donations, we would not be able to fund our services.”

A look at the processing room where they process donations, at the Goodwill 34th Street Superstore, 2550 34th St N. in St. Petersburg. "Donations are the lifeblood of what we do," Goodwill President and CEO Debbie Passerini said. "Without donations we don't have a business." [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

The local Goodwills have already updated their sales strategies to not only stay current, but competitive. That gives the store’s employees the ability to make a pair of high-waisted vintage Levi’s jeans — a hot seller — more expensive than a pair of less desirable low-rise pants from Old Navy.

Goodwill stores nationwide are increasingly putting high-end or niche items for sale online in hopes they will turn a better profit because they have the potential to reach more shoppers.

Fanning and Cocozza said more popular secondhand items, be it band tees or vintage Calvin Klein, aren’t easy to find. Thrift stores, especially in bigger cities, have their trendy items picked over by other resellers or savvy secondhand shoppers.

That’s why the duo regularly takes trips across the country to give their inventory some variety.

This weekend, they’re scouring Nashville.

Alessandro Cocozza, St. Petersburg, poses in his shop, World Thrift, at 5282 Seminole Blvd. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

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