Consignment Sales Rise as Economy Falls

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

Patricia Ohlemiller packed up her Edmund Scientific Astroscan telescope last week and headed to the Gaithersburg iSold It eBay drop-off center. She hoped to recoup $150, minus commission, of its original $350 value.

Planning to retire next year and worried about putting her house on the market, Ohlemiller said, "I'd rather sell stuff I don't need and get the cash."

Colleen Magro dragged a heavy box to the Bethesda offices of Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers a couple of weeks ago for appraisal day. Inside were carefully wrapped Chinese ceramics and Brazilian sculptures set with semi-precious stones that she hoped to consign.

"I was laid off in December," Magro said. "I need money. I thought I'd have a job by now."

It's too late to dump Fannie Mae stock, but you can still dump that Marie Osmond doll, David Yurman bracelet or Krups espresso machine in its original box. With financial markets in perpetual meltdown, a growing number of people anxious about jobs, savings and retirement are looking over their living room shelves, storage units, attics and safety deposit boxes for items they no longer use or like. They're contacting online sellers, consignment shops and auctions about unloading the unwanted possessions.

"People are selling coins their grandfather gave them for gas money," says Nicholas Pyle, an eBay trading assistant based in Georgetown, who has been getting panicked calls. Listings on eBay, an auction site, have increased 19 percent in the past year, and overall revenue has grown 13 percent, spokeswoman Jenny Baragary said.

Classified ads for furniture and household items on Craigslist are up nearly 100 percent from last year, spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best said in an e-mail. "Our savvy, penny-pinching users are responding to the unruly economy by selling and trading goods for quick cash in their wallets."

Sales have increased 15 percent over last year at Upscale Resale, a furniture consignment shop in Falls Church. "This is the first time in the 16 years we've been in operation that we've seen people bring in whole houses that are part of foreclosures and evictions," owner Bob Willey said.

Will the economic crisis force Americans to examine overstuffed closets and rethink the longtime mantra to "collect 'em all"?

Daniel Nissanoff is the author of ''FutureShop: How to Trade Up to a Luxury Lifestyle Today,'' about how online shopping affects consumer culture. He says buying and selling branded goods secondhand has become socially acceptable. "The Internet did not exist in prior down cycles," he said. "Now you can truly liquidate your material possessions and create money."

Local auction houses are bustling. "Some people are cagey about it, but others are direct: 'My stocks have taken a bit of a beating, and I should clear this out, make some space and get some bucks in the process,' " said Stephanie Kenyon, president of Sloans & Kenyon, where auction sales are up 20 percent over a year ago, and sales at its adjoining consignment store have risen 28 percent. "Sometimes selling off a few good things can help people living on a fixed income."

At Weschler's Auctioneers and Appraisers in the District, well-dressed matrons are dipping into their supply of botanical engravings or sterling trays to help tide them over until the blue chips bounce back. "We are not a pawn shop, so people don't walk in here expecting immediate cash," said Virginia Weschler, executive vice president. "Part of our job is helping people save face and keep their self-respect."

At Georgetown's Christ Child Opportunity Shop, sales are up 15 percent over a year ago, and the number of inquiries has doubled. The consignment store is jammed with French soup tureens and monogrammed silver cake servers. "I think we're going to sell a lot of it," manager Jay York said. "People tend to not go out to eat in a recession. They will entertain at home."

There are customers for secondhand items because they are still cheaper than buying new.

At Replacements in Greensboro, N.C., a china, crystal and silver seller with 13 million old and new pieces in stock, president Scott Fleming said a Georgia woman sold her Portmeirion Botanic Garden dishes to make a mortgage payment. Another woman cashed in her sterling silver flatware to fund a Nova Scotia vacation.

"Our phone calls and purchases from individuals are up 10 percent this year," Fleming said. "They are hoping to get a few extra dollars in tough times."

So was federal government staff assistant Linda Wills, who collected mismatched gold earrings and rings and headed to Goldman's gold and silver buying service, which had set up shop at L'Enfant Plaza Hotel. "The economy is bad," Wills said. Her handful of gold was tested and weighed, and she was handed a check for $140. "This is $140 I can put in a savings account. It's some extra cash I didn't have to work for."

September was the biggest month for sales this year at the Gaithersburg iSold It eBay store. Open seven days a week, the store hosts a parade of suburbanites clutching Hummel figurines, Thomas Kinkade paintings, Redskins tickets and Coach handbags.

Owner Mike Hadad said: "A year ago, someone might have been selling something to upgrade to the latest model. Now it's because they can use the money for bills." Last week, Berta Hakes of Fairfield, Pa., carried in 11 Longaberger baskets, the pricey maple country designs prized by many collectors. She owns 40.

"I would like to have the cash instead," she said. "My savings is almost nonexistent."

One of Hadad's regular customers used his eBay sales as a source of income on a mortgage application. Another had Hadad sell the contents of a foreclosed home. But don't think you can sell any old thing to help replenish what you lost in your 401(k). Hadad said most Beanie Babies, Pokemon cards and 1970s rock albums have no real value.

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