The search for a used Chanel bag led Elise Whang out of her job as an attorney and into a new career as co-founder of Snob Swap, a Web site that allows users to buy, sell and swap pre-owned designer goods.
Whang was pregnant with her second child when she had the idea for an online consignment shop. She decided to quit her job at the Federal Trade Commission to start Snob Swap with her sister.
“I got a little tired of chasing the mythical work-life balance,” said Whang, 37. “I just thought, it’s time for a change. I was tired of that flea-market feel of consignment sites. And I was also tired of half the stuff in my closet.”
Ten months after the company’s founding, Whang and her sister are on the verge of hiring their first full-time employee. There are other plans in the works, too: a redesign of the Web site, Facebook integration and an iPhone app slated to come out next month.
“Our timing is good,” Whang said. “People are more budget-conscious now. They’re savvier shoppers. They shop online.”
Snob Swap is the latest in a line of Web sites such as Tradesy, RodeoDriveResale and Karma Couture to specialize in online consignment sales. Others such as Bag, Borrow & Steal, which allows customers to rent designers bags for a month at a time, and Rent the Runway, a similar program for clothing and accessories, have also gained ground in recent years as shoppers look for ways to pay less for high-end products.
“The economy has made young people more discerning about their purchases,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based research firm. “They would rather have a nice classic that lasts a long time than a fly-by-night product.”
Snob Swap relies on an eBay-type model that allows customers to sell items for a set price or ask for cash offers. There is also a “swap’”option that allows sellers to solicit trades.
“You can post your silk scarf and swap it for a handbag in L.A. or a skirt from New York,” Whang said.
Snob Swap keeps a 10 percent cut of every sale (although swaps are free). Most items are sold for 30 percent to 40 percent of their retail price, Whang said. A pair of Versace sunglasses that originally cost $175, for example, are listed for $69 on the site.
“Our members are largely women in their early 20s to their 40s,” Whang said. “There are a lot of students and young professionals, and also women in their 30s and 40s who would like to cash out their closets and pass on their designer goodies to someone who would use them.”
The company partners with consignment shops such as Chic to Chic in Gaithersburg and Tari in the District, to sell items from their stores online. The idea, Whang said, is to be as accessible as possible to customers throughout the country.
Whang is in the process of testing Closet Concierge, a full-service option for people who are too busy to list their own items. Clients can send their designer goods to Whang, who will research the items, then price and list them on the Web site. Once the items are sold, Whang will ship them to the buyer and give the seller a 60 percent cut.
Last week, Whang’s office in Northwest Washington was strewn with items from a client in New York: Tiffany & Co. sunglasses (to be sold for $125), suede Givenchy pumps ($89), cross-body Louis Vuitton bag ($225).
“Oh, and this silk, mandarin-style Prada dress,” she said, pulling out a red number ($199). “It’s just so cute.”
Whang, who started the company with her own money, would not disclose financial figures, but said that monthly revenue was “in the thousands.” Sales are growing at a rate of about 50 percent every month.
“The most popular categories are dresses, handbags and shoes,” she said. “As far as brands, it’s Chanel, Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Rebecca Taylor, but we also have really cute vintage items. I just bought a great snakeskin vintage purse.”
Whang is quick to point out the items she’s bought through the site: The beige Christian Louboutin pumps on her feet, her Seven for Mankind jeans and Marc Jacobs coat.
“I think I buy something every week,” she said. “Sometimes I worry that my sister and I built this Web site just to go shopping on it.”
Whang graduated from Langley High School in Fairfax County and now lives in Chevy Chase. Her sister, Emily Dang, handles the company’s marketing in San Francisco, while Whang works with the site’s developers and runs day-to-day operations.
“Starting this business here [in Washington] has been a natural progression,” she said. “The fashion scene here is growing, and there are so many tech brainiacs and business-saavy investors.”
And that Chanel bag that inspired the whole project? Whang ended up buying it new.
“But,” she said, “I’ll probably sell it on Snob Swap some day.”