Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Recycle, renew, reinvent: Consignment stores fill niche

Consigned goods provide alternate business, shopping opportunities in down economy

Express Staff Writer

Deanna Melin, left, and Linda Badell, partners in consignment store Vault, were unsure how the business would fare. But in the year that it has been open, they’ve been pleased with the response. Photo by Willy Cook

If necessity is the mother of invention, adversity expedites the process.

Deanna Melin and Linda Badell had built successful careers, in interior design and real estate, respectively, but the economy had taken its toll. Seeing their businesses and incomes decline, the friends pondered their next move.

"We came together because we felt we wanted to do high-end consignment, and possibly home staging and sell antiques," said Melin, owner of Vault, a consignment store specializing in home décor.

"For me, I had a bunch of furniture and thought that we could sell it," said Badell, her business partner. "It was one of those (career) reinvention things."

With Melin's design and staging experience and Badell's collection of furniture and knowledge of area homes, they pooled their knowledge and resources.

Those resources, however, did not include much startup funding.

"We started this with absolutely no money," Badell said.

A consignment business, in which a store sells items on behalf of people and then keeps a portion of the profit, could be started with very little cash.

At first, they envisioned a pop-up store, a temporary business in a temporary location.

Badell contacted a property owner she knew, who offered her a month-to-month lease for space on Leadville Avenue in Ketchum's downtown.

"We didn't know if it was going to work or not," she said.

On Aug. 1, 2010, they opened their doors.

"It was beyond huge," Melin said. "From the beginning, the community embraced it. They just love it."

Art, antiques, furniture and unusual items were coming in the door on consignment and going out as sales.

The partners are enthusiastic about their place in the resale transaction and the reuse of goods.

"We love the idea of recycling people's treasures so that other people can enjoy them," Melin said.

Many people have been storing their goods in hopes of passing them on to their children, she said. Others are relocating out of the area and want to lighten their moving load. Still others simply want to change the style of their home décor.

People who can sell their wares are happy, and people who can get good deals on high-end items are happy, Badell said.

"It's a really fun environment," she said.

On the other side of Main Street, an attractive little building on First Avenue North sat empty last year. Carol Thielen had tried for months to lease the space, to no avail.

"I decided in October I needed to do something quick," she said. "It was an economic necessity to get a business going."

She knew everyone had closets full of unwanted clothing and accessories. Perhaps there was opportunity in helping them clear out their closets.

In her previous career, Thielen dealt in European antiques. Clothing required a different touch. She pored over industry materials to learn the business.

"Customer relations are the same," she said, but, "antiques and clothes are like potatoes and champagne grapes. I did a lot of research."

Consignment appealed to her because it didn't require a large investment.

"You don't have to put money into inventory," she said.

The day after Thanksgiving 2010, she opened Consign Design, wondering how it would be received.

"I was in the small part (of the building) and within a month I was renovating the bigger side," she said.

Customers such as Aurelie Boloix come in looking for good deals and searching out unique items.

"It's the best concept ever," said Boloix, a Ketchum resident. "I love this store. There's quality, and for a small town it's one way to get more diversity (in selection). The prices, of course, are a big part of it."

Thielen, like Melin and Badell, said she likes the idea of items getting extended use.

"Things are having their second life, from one closet to the next," she said.

The consignment store as a business model has worked well for Lara Spencer, owner of Ketchum's Dollhouse Consignment Boutique. Spencer opened a second location, The Rainbow's End, this spring in Hailey.

Sarah Mullendore brought her business model of new, custom and consignment furniture and home goods from Jackson, Wyo., to Ketchum.

Mullendore, who opened My House Furnishings on Memorial Day weekend, said the economy can bring both good and bad news for businesses.

"When people can't sell their houses, they're redoing their houses, so consignment does well," she said. "You can upgrade without upgrading the house."

The flip side is that people are always looking for a bargain. She said the most commonly asked question is, "Is this your best price?" And, it's a question that comes from customers of all income levels.

"Everyone wants a good deal," she said.

She plans her inventory so everyone can go home with something.

"That was my goal," she said. "Just to be able to have something for everybody."

Consignment sales are nothing new on car lots. But the economy can play a role in the amount of consignment inventory a lot has.

"It's a good way for people to sell their cars," said Spike Stephenson, general manager of Hailey Auto Exchange, which has offered cars on consignment for 10 years. "Trying to sell their own car, they realize how tough it can be. Convenience really is the key."

Stephenson said the number of vehicles on consignment can range from 15 percent to nearly 50 percent. The economy can play a role in that, he said.

"We saw an upswing because people were consolidating," he said. "They decided they don't have to have a car for every one of their kids."

Worth Repeating in Ketchum has been selling a diversity of consignment items for seven years.

Although it was not the economy that prompted Marilee Hansen to go into the business, it did offer a change of career.

"I had waitressed my whole life," she said. "I was at the age where I wanted to do something different."

Clothes, furniture, jewelry and other items are offered at her store.

Though consignment stores sometimes compete with each other, many storeowners see it as a chance to work in cooperation, generating interest in shopping locally.

"I think competition is good," Hansen said. "It's going to happen, so you might as well work together."

Hansen said she encourages people to browse other stores.

"If they're consignment shopping, they like to hit them all," she said. "I always refer people to another business. It's our objective to completely support the businesses in town."

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