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Francie’s boutique looks like it’s been in Rockport forever. Tucked into a Swiss Chalet-style building, the narrow storefront is all shades of brown, from the brick flooring to the dark walls. Low ceilings with exposed beams give the space an Old World feel that is isn’t out of place among the eclectic collection of carefully selected new and used clothes available for sale.

“I know it’s all wrong from a retail perspective,” admits proprietor Leslie Fincke, whose prior retailing career included a stint for Marshalls Department Store. “It’s like a cave—but I just fell in love with the space.” Seems like customers have accepted it, too—on a crisp weekday afternoon, at least a dozen people popped in to browse the racks.

Despite the feeling that Francie’s Boutique has always been here, the store actually opened in Rockport a little over a year ago, just one of a burgeoning number of resale and consignment shops popping up across the area. In fact, this is Fincke’s second location in less than two years. She opened her first Francie’s Boutique in April 2010, just 13 months before debuting in Rockport.

While upscale used clothing stores have always been around, they are appearing with increasing regularity in empty storefronts throughout the North Shore. Most towns have at least one, and many have two or three, often near each other. Re-find, a Salem store specializing in new and resale eclectic separates, recently joined consignment mainstay Modern Millie’s and relative newcomer Mighty Aphrodite, all within a few blocks’ walk.

Re-find owner Shelley Matthews, whose retail background includes Lucky Brands, Coach, and Anne Fontaine, opened her store in March 2011 and says that clustering is a good thing. “The more options in a town, the more it will draw customers,” she says. “If there are three or four stores, people will make more of an effort to come—maybe spend the afternoon, stop for coffee somewhere, and meet some friends.”

Matthews seems to be hoping to almost single-handedly turn Salem, which has been her hometown for the past 12 years, into a resale Mecca. She has already signed a lease for a space around the corner from Re-find, where she plans to open a men’s consignment shop this spring, and if all goes well, three more stores, including one specializing in furniture, will follow over the next five years.

Fincke agrees that when it comes to used clothing stores, the more the merrier. “There isn’t a fierce competition for shoppers [in used clothing],” she says. “If they shop one, they’ll shop them all.” She is so happy to see new stores open that she is willing to share her experience and advice with people who are considering taking the leap themselves. Not only that, but she has teamed up with Madam Hadem, a consignment shop in Marblehead, to launch Consignment Crawl ( bus tours. The first one, held in November, visited six North Shore shops, and they expect to run several each season.

“We are like a family,” Fincke says. “How many industries would take their best customers to competing stores?” Each store sold five tickets at $40 per person, including lunch, transportation, and a Champagne toast. Stores also paid a fee to participate.

Marketing on a Shoestring

The consignment crawl is just one of the relatively low-cost strategies consignment store owners are using to advertise their businesses. With slim profit margins and an uncertain economy, traditional advertising is nearly out of reach for shop owners like Bobbie Gordon, the owner of Loop Consignment, a children’s store in Swampscott that opened in April 2010, because it often doesn’t offer much bang for her buck. After winning a “Best Of” award from the Swampscott Reporter, she offered a 20 percent off coupon to accompany the news and wound up with no takers. She started telling her customers to look for the coupon because she wanted people to use it. “That wasn’t the point,” she says. “The point was to bring in new business.”

Fortunately, social media and the Internet offer a wealth of free advertising. On the very active Francie’s Boutique Facebook page, every Wednesday, Fincke posts a 20 percent off sale on a specific item, like boots or outerwear. And when she gets special or unusual pieces in, she’ll post a photo to Facebook—she’s even sold some items to friends on the West Coast this way.

The Internet can also be a way to keep the cash flow going during slow months. Gordon has one customer who will post big-ticket items, like strollers and high chairs, on Craig’s List on her behalf. If the item sells, the customer takes a 20 percent cut of the proceeds. And last winter, when the snow piled up continuously and kept shoppers inside, Fincke turned to eBay to make some sales—and occasionally shut the door to her shop for a little while to go for a walk and get some coffee.

While Fincke admits that it was a bit disconcerting to find herself with an empty store in a nearly deserted downtown, that ability to make her own decisions is one of the main reasons that she enjoys running her own business, despite having to scale down her lifestyle. “I certainly made more money when I didn’t work for myself,” she says, “but there is an intangible value that more than makes up for the adjustment.”

Community Connections

One of those intangibles is a sense of community that Fincke finds developing around her shops, from the Rockport tourists who have returned for the past two summers, to her sister, her mom, and even customers who volunteer to work in both locations. Several of her regulars take shifts in exchange for merchandise credit and never find it a chore. “It means a lot to me that they think it’s fun to be in my store,” she says.

Loop’s Gordon also relies on customers—and community—to provide some of the staffing in her stores. She recalls one retired schoolteacher who came in one day a week for six months to help out. “That’s what has kept me going,” she says. “It’s much more than just buying clothes…especially when people first move here, it can be lonely, so I try to make it social.” To that end, she is always working to make connections among her customers. “I hope this can be a place to start building community,” she says.

However much Gordon wants to provide a gathering place, she is learning that her people-pleasing nature may not be the best characteristic for running a business.

“The hardest part, I’ve learned, is [that] people who are successful in business must care less about making friends,” she says. Her desire to please the consigners has led her to take things she knows she shouldn’t, and she has made a variety of concessions to them that make it harder for her to run her business.

“I find it really hard to say no,” Gordon says. “Sometimes, I take things I know are not going to sell because in some really idealistic way, I am giving hope to someone that they may make some money for their family.”

Re-find’s Matthews has no such problems with saying no—perhaps because her own money is on the line with every purchase. She buys everything that goes in the store, rather than consigning. She feels that it puts the customer in control. Sellers can get either 30 percent of the item’s planned ticket price in cash or 50 percent in trade or store credit. For example, she may ticket a Michael Kors sweater at $42, so the seller will get $12.60 in cash or $21 in trade. “If they don’t like that price, they can just not sell it to me,” she says.

Tracking Takes Time

Fincke and Gordon both run traditional consignment shops. In each case, the store takes 60 percent of the item’s sale price. While the initial cash outlay is much lower, Gordon says she now understands why people buy out instead of consigning.

“[Monitoring] inventory and keeping track of people’s stuff takes a lot of time,” Gordon laments, especially since, in an effort to make things easier for her approximately 400 consigners, she allows people to just drop off bags of clothes for her to go through later. It’s a practice she may soon have to abandon, as bags and boxes are piling up behind the counter, under display shelves, and in her minimal storage area. As for how much time she spends stocking the racks, Gordon doesn’t even want to venture a guess.

Fincke, on the other hand, is very much aware of how much of her time is spent on acquisition; with about 1,200 consignors who have accounts, she says she spends about 75 percent of her time on getting inventory into her store, from the initial appointments through inputting and tagging the merchandise, pressing it, and getting it on the rack.

Of course, it all starts with picking the right items. Fincke admits that there was a learning curve in deciding what to accept from sellers. Initially, some 40 percent of the items she took in wound up unsold. Now, that’s closer to 25 percent or 30 percent. For Gordon, the biggest challenge was price point. “At the beginning, I was way too expensive,” she admits. “Now, I think I’m at a good price point.”

Matthews finds pricing challenging as well, but for a different reason. In this economy, she works hard to keep her average price point around $25. For that reason, she tends to shy away when people bring in high-end designer goods that, even at resale prices, would skew well above that tag.

Pricing in a Down Economy

“Right now, I’m very price conscious,” she says. “I spend hours and hours hunting down bargains.” She notes that as the economy improves, she may loosen the purse strings and take in more high-end designers on the resale side.

Loop’s Gordon agrees that the economy has a strong effect on her shoppers. “We all overindulged” during the good years, she says. “People still want to do things the way they used to—to change up their kid’s room or their living room—but they have less money.” At her store, she says you can walk away with a child’s complete wardrobe for a season for less than $100.

While Fincke agrees that economy is certainly a driving force in the boutique consignment trend, she also sees another idea at work—perhaps one that will permanently change the way people shop. “People have realized that not everything is disposable,” she says, adding that since recycling plastics has become the norm, people are more comfortable with recycling other things. Ultimately, she hopes, that will add up to a permanent change in the way people shop. “I don’t know how you can go back to paying $1,000 for a Prada bag when you’ve paid $300.”

Divine Consignment

Top finds at Re-find (72 Washington St., Salem) include Citizens of Humanity and 7 for All Mankind denim for $36 to $44. The brands can retail new for up to $190. At Loop Consignment (503 Humphrey St., Swampscott), jogging strollers are a  top seller, priced from $40 to $200. Visitors to Francie’s Boutique (30 Main St., Topsfield; 14 Dock Square, Rockport) might find a new Rebecca Taylor dress ($380) marked down to $65. Boots from Frye, Louboutin, and Ugg are flying off the shelves at Chic Consignment Closet (46 Main St., Andover), which opened in mid-2009 and was named Boston Globe Magazine’s “Best of the New” in 2010. At Mint (174 Cabot St., Beverly), which opened in 2010, shoppers might find a pony-skin Fendi  purse for $185.