Know your customer.
Carmen Lopez does.
She is the founder and president of Current Boutique, a Web site and a chainlet of four consignment stores in Bethesda, Md.; Alexandria and Clarendon, Va., and the District.
Current Boutique works this way: It accepts lightly used women’s clothing, bags, shoes, jewelry and other accessories from people (consignors) who want to sell. Lopez and her staff take what they think they can sell, put it on display in their boutiques and on their Web site, and then split the proceeds 50-50 with the consignor if it is purchased.
Last year, they sold $3 million worth of goods, which left them with $1.5 million before costs such as labor, leases, utilities, upkeep and everything else. She and her husband, Chris, own 100 percent of the business and have zero debt.
The owners would not disclose their profit, but it appears to be a nice business, generating healthy returns.
Business is good enough that Chris quit his job as a securities attorney to join the company. Lopez focuses on the clothing, training employees and marketing. Chris handles accounting, facilities and the two-year-old online store. The vast majority of business comes from the bricks-and-mortar side.
The 36-year-old fashionista has honed her craft over the years, developing a tough-minded, unsentimental approach to what her customers want and when they want it. She knows her Alexandria store caters to the preppy crowd. Bethesda is for the really upscale. The crowd patronizing its 14th Street NW shop is edgy. Clarendon is a little bit of all those.
Lopez and her 40-some employees have to say no to the clothes their consignors bring them. And often.
That hurts the feelings of some who may have a cherished suit or handbag from a special moment or a lost loved one. It may mean the world to them, but it might be better suited for the charity bin.
“The interesting thing about consignment — and the hardest thing to teach new employees — is that every consignment a person brings into our store has a story,” Lopez said. “We ensure that we accept pieces for consignment that we know will sell and take the time to explain why we have to pass on others. It’s a personal process to the consignor, and so we strive to treat it as more than just business.”
But there is more to it than women looking for something to sell.
These consignors tend to be “fashion-forward women with access to designer fashion,” Lopez said. “They have an active lifestyle and need a revolving closet for their many events, dates, social activities,” Lopez said. “Women have hundreds of thousands of dollars of clothing sitting in their closet, stuff they don’t wear. Maybe worn only once.”
So how does this business work?
Each consignor signs a contract that allows Current Boutique to set the price of the items, with the option to adjust the price if needed. The store has the right to sell the items at any of its locations, including online. It can also hold the items until they are in season. Lopez has the right to donate any items not sold within 90 days.
If the items Lopez and company like are dirty, they will request that the consignor clean it and come back.
“From there, we train our staff to review each piece for the construction of an item and the quality of the fabric,” said Lopez, who gives bonuses to employees who hit their sales goals. They don’t take stained, defective or heavily worn items. And they keep an eye out for glam names like Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch, Chanel and St. John that catch customers’ attention.
The chain is called “Current” for a reason.
“We avoid unflattering item-dated clothing, regardless of brand name.”
The biggest paydays so far have been two Hermes Birkin bags. One sold for $9,000 and another for $5,800. Current Boutique split that with the consignors.
“Our boutique helps women make money back on their investment,” Lopez said. “They use that money to do guilt-free shopping. Luckily, we have a lot of repeat consignors with great stuff. We sell their items so they keep coming back to recycle their wardrobe.”
Lopez shoots for pricing her goods at about a third of what they might sell for their original price.
Checking the firm’s jazzy online site, you can find a pair of Ferragamo Vara pumps, which retail at $525, for sale at Current Boutique for $150. There is a Tiffany & Co. sterling silver heart pendant, which retails for $495. Current Boutique price: $165. There’s a Diane von Furstenberg silk print dress, which retails for $428. Current’s price: $142. A Burberry leather satchel costs $548 from Lopez. It retails for $1,495.
Lopez comes by consignment shopping from experience.
She grew up in Prince George’s County with a mother who worked 50 hours a week helping the elderly and her father, a laid-off steelworker who did landscaping for the federal government.
“My parents have an amazing work ethic,” she said. “I have been inspired by them.”
She didn’t have much money, so she began working odd jobs in middle school, at bookstores, a Hallmark card store and such.
“I shopped secondhand clothiers and thrift stores,” she said. “I was on a tight budget. I would sift through racks of clothing to find the diamond in the rough. I got excited when I found a cashmere sweater and wool skirt that I could afford.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland, where she majored in psychology and marketing, she worked at places such as the Discovery Channel. She lived at home, saving like mad.
By 2007, when she was 29, Lopez scraped together $75,000 and made the payment on a lease for 1,000 square feet of retail space in Clarendon because of its proximity to young professionals.
“I was betting on myself,” said Lopez, who had mapped a business plan that targeted her demographic and a price point they could afford, somewhere between $60 and $150 per item. “I wanted to create a place where people could feel good about shopping secondhand but also help shoppers recycle their wardrobe.”
She knew the hot spots around the region and stalked potential locations for foot traffic, real estate prices, demographics and access to transportation.
Lopez started slowly, getting clothes from friends and family, building on relationships she had from growing up here.
It has worked.
I strolled over to the 14th Street NW store recently to take a look. Lopez smartly had the air conditioning blasting on a sweltering August afternoon.
It looked like any women’s retail store in the mall, full of racks packed with colorful clothes, shoes, handbags and satchels. There was jewelry, too. The front of the store had some fresh, unconsigned items that Lopez found at shows she trolls.
When I started telling her about my favorite Coach leather bags from more than two decades ago, she smiled politely and struggled to stifle a laugh.
She knows one thing. I am not her customer.