What if you could shop for a living? No, we’re not talking mystery shopping, or even working as a personal stylist. This job entails shopping at thrift stores, garage sales and even other people’s closets.
Vintage has long been back in style, especially because every piece is so unique. If you find a piece of vintage clothing from the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, there’s a good chance you’ve found the last one on Earth. And if you learn how to find those one-of-a-kind, highly sought-after vintage pieces in the wild, you can resell them online to make a profit.
Sound easy? That’s not entirely the case. Selling vintage clothing on Etsy isn’t a way to make a quick buck. But when you have a passion for paying homage to fashion of decades past, the work doesn’t (always) feel like a job.
That’s exactly the case for Lora Conrad, the owner of Hungry Heart Vintage. Over the past few years, she’s built her Etsy shop into a profitable business. Conrad sells about 20-30 pieces a month through her shop, as well as a few more through private purchases.
She gave us some insight into how she got started, how she finds and prices her pieces, and how she’s built her Etsy business into a job she loves going to every single day.
Scrounge High and Low
When asked how she finds her pieces, Conrad says, “Lots and lots of scrounging!” Estate sales, flea markets, garage sales, antique malls in the middle of nowhere, you name it. Conrad is always on the hunt for new pieces she can breathe new life into and sell.
One surprising way she acquires new pieces is through private appointments. “People don’t realize that, much of the time, I get my inventory because someone has just passed away,” she said.
“Private buying appointments are by far my favorite ways of acquiring vintage,” she said. “I love taking the time to sit down with people as we go through their old clothes, or more often, their late loved one’s clothes. I get to learn all about the women who wore them, and when I leave I feel like I’m leaving with more than just dresses. I’m leaving their homes with bits of their family history that will live on through others.”
When she first started selling vintage, Conrad didn’t anticipate this would be part of her job. “But it makes me happy when I can help people through that time, even in such a miniscule way,” she said.
Swimsuit season arrived a couple months ago — including in Conrad’s shop. She constantly keeps her shop fresh and lists what’s in season.
That means swimsuits and party dresses in the summer, cardigans and scarves in the fall. If she finds a stellar vintage coat on a summer thrifting adventure, she won’t post it until cooler weather arrives. It’s not just that she can get more money when an item is in season. It also keeps her selling costs as low as possible.
Etsy charges $0.20 for each listing. If it doesn’t sell within four months, it costs another $0.20 to relist the item. By posting in-season pieces that will likely sell within four months, Conrad only needs to pay the listing fee once.
She also runs promotions, especially during holidays like Black Friday. Running a 20% off promotion during the already high-shopping holiday season brings more customers to her shop and moves more product off her virtual shelves. While this entails much more work — more shipping, more back and forth with customers, and more time to keep her store stocked — Conrad finds the extra revenue she makes during this time provides a nice buffer for the post-holiday shopping slump.
Build Your Brand
Conrad doesn’t spend all her time on her Etsy shop. She’s also active on Facebook and has 1,700 Instagram followers, where she shares not only new listings, but also sneak peeks of what’s coming soon and behind-the-scenes photos of her workday and “shop assistants” (a dog and two cats.) This puts a face on Hungry Heart Vintage, so her customers can get to know the woman behind the shop.
Though it’s more difficult to track the value of the time she spends building the Hungry Heart brand, Conrad does occasionally make sales through Instagram.
Conrad also blogs about how to blend vintage and modern style. She’s kind of like a vintage clothing advisor. “Vintage clothing isn’t just for vintage enthusiasts, and just because something is old doesn’t mean it has to be styled that way,” Conrad said in a recent blog post.
Dedicate Yourself to the Details
Glowing reviews attract more people to your shop. And on the other side of the coin, a bad review can turn someone away. The best way to acquire those happy customers, then entice them to leave you a five-star review? Go above and beyond their expectations.
To begin with, Conrad spends a great deal of time preparing clothes for sale. Cleaning and repairing is time consuming. “Some pieces need to be soaked and hand washed several times to get the decades of dirt out,” she said.
Then Conrad gets extremely detailed in how she describes each item. She includes measurements as well as information about fit, material, brand and condition. She always lets customers know about any imperfections and provides a range of photos for each item.
After the sale, Conrad artfully packages her orders and writes notes to thank her customers.
“Packing takes quite a bit of time, but that’s on me,” Conrad said. “I love packing up orders and making them look pretty, so I’m happy to spend a lot of time on that.”
With review after review from her customers thanking her for a pleasant shopping experience, Conrad has built the trust that will bring new customers to her shop.
Develop a Pricing Formula
One of the trickiest parts of selling vintage clothes is pricing. Some pieces are more rare than others, so are worth more. Some pieces Conrad finds for cheap, others she has to pay more for up front. Many require a great deal of time and money (dry cleaning, new zippers or buttons) to bring up to selling condition.
So how much does she make on the stuff she resells?
“It’s hard to say from piece to piece,” Conrad said. “Sometimes you find a treasure on its way to someone’s dumpster or in your neighborhood thrift. Other times, between the cost of purchasing the items, plus the cost of cleaning supplies or having it professionally cleaned, repairs, the mark up is fairly slim.”
Since so much wildly varies in how much she pays and invests in each piece, Conrad doesn’t aim for a certain margin every time. And she doesn’t even bother with trying to factor in her own labor hours. “The only formula I use to mark up items is, L=0. That’s ‘Lora pays herself no money per hour for her labor.’ “
Just like other successful Etsy sellers, Conrad does not deny how much work she puts into finding, preparing and selling her pieces. “I’ve never tracked the hours it takes to see a piece through from start to finish, but I know I’m done when my lower back hurts.”
But as a self-defined “independent, stubborn, loner workaholic,” she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Starting a business from nothing is totally terrifying, but the moment I made my first sale I knew I did the right thing.”
Your Turn: Do you sell vintage clothing online? What advice do you have for new Etsy sellers?
Betsy Mikel is a Chicago-based freelance copywriter. She loves biking all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria.