Thrift shopping is like searching for buried treasure -- you’re not sure where it is, what it looks like or how long it will take you to find it. But, millennials on Instagram have made finding thrifted gems as easy as scrolling through your feed, and they’re making serious doubloons.
No one knows this better than the people who run Instagram auction accounts. They do all the dirty work -- traveling near and far to dig through piles of musty hand-me-downs for hours to find just the right fit. UT students and some even younger teenagers in Knoxville have cashed in on this idea.
These virtual secondhand resellers create an online personality presence that exceeds the connections brick and mortar stores can make with customers. Thanks to Instagram story highlights, fun editing and retro but not outdated fashions, millennial moguls are making bargain hunting profitable, convenient and trendy.
Baker Donahue, UT alum and founder of In With The Old, jumpstarted his career in clothing and established his personal brand during college with his Insta-shop.
“To be honest, it all got started because I spent all my money on vintage Vols clothes and couldn’t afford a website. I started exploring creative ways to sell my product … There was eBay, Etsy, thrift shops, your grandma’s basement … I took to Instagram because I realized that’s where the majority of college students were, and it was the most engaging platform,” Donahue said.
Within a week, In With The Old had more than 1,000 followers. But, it isn’t always that easy. The journey from rack to riches begins with the right pieces and careful planning.
Hannah Burkhart, a 16-year-old student at West High School started her account, @865thrifts, in January. She sifts through Goodwill stores after school and between track meets, but her mom is constantly on the search for good buys at local stores. Often, Burkhart only buys a couple pieces at a time.
“I try to stick to stuff that I would wear myself,” Burkhart said while thumbing through men’s shirts. The rows of racks spilled into the floor, up the walls and onto the ceiling. It was a treasure hunter’s dream.
Burkhart started her account after noticing other Instagram thrift shops popping up across Knoxville. However, it’s not the competition that holds Burkhart back, it’s the narrow profit margins of online thrifting.
“Primarily my follower base is people out of the state. … Shipping has actually been an issue that we’ve had to work around because shipping prices are so expensive … I still lose money sometimes because it’s hard to sell a shirt that I bought for $3 for at least $10 when you include shipping, and that’s just breaking even.”
To avoid this issue, Donahue had to turn to mainstream resellers and his friends to expand his business and keep up with customer demand.
“Bulk buying is key to this business,” Donahue said. “Once I had scraped through all the thrift stores, I really started buying heavily from eBay and Etsy. I would identify individuals who had large quantities of vintage collegiate apparel and offer them a price for the lot, making sure that I maintained below thrift store costs … I eventually had a network of buyers on campus thrift shopping for me. It became a really cool automated supply chain system for sourcing vintage clothing.”
After businesses find the right pieces, it’s time to steam, clean and style clothing for Instagram. Profiles featuring high-quality photos find the most success on social media and, in turn, appear more credible to buyers.
“We provided a service to our customers. This product already existed. It was our job to put it in one specific place and put a story behind the product,” Donahue said. “Although the product was really cool, the [professional] way we presented, I think, drove people to our page that normally wouldn’t buy something from an Instagram page.”
Young users hoping to venture into the world of social commerce must be prepared to wade through seas of secondhand styles and brave the high waters of the industry to find fortune, but the bounty can be worth it for savvy shoppers who can manage their time.
“It was the best part-time job I could ever have in college, but it was very much a part-time job,” Donahue said. “Starting a vintage clothing company has put me in a lot of places that I would never be in right now without that experience.”
Donahue’s days don’t look the same anymore from his New York City apartment. He works with Hillflint, a retailer who recreates “heirloom quality” college apparel and that he describes as his dream company.
But the adventure all began with a social startup.