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Hand Me Downs” is a wonderful name for a children’s resale store. It describes an old-fashioned practice again avant-garde in a world newly conscious of economic and environmental waste. But “Handled With Care” might better describe the way things work at Evanston’s only purveyor of gently used children’s clothing, equipment and furniture, which moved to 614 Dempster St. from its former small space off Central Street on April 1, 2008.
“A relationship business,” Monica Williams calls the 25-year-old enterprise she has owned for two and a half years. It is also a business where “buying from customers is the store’s only source of merchandise,” she notes.
Since her buyers are most often also her suppliers, Ms. Williams is attuned to their needs in both roles.
The relationship often begins when a family has a baby. As the baby outgrows things, the family sells them to her, even as they continue buying from the store in increasingly larger sizes. “Then they are gone,” she says, until some return as grandparents.
“We have a lot of second-generation customers and a few third-,” she says, which she finds “fun and unique.”
The main business of the store is clothes. Ms. Williams buys outright, by appointment and in season. She expects her spring-summer purchasing, begun in January, to be finished by mid-April.
Last year the store bought $70,000 worth of merchandise – most of that from locals who, she assumes, poured the money back into the community.
Her goal is to sell everything. “I don’t pack up and hold [merchandise],” she says. “It’s already used.” She also aims to stock a full range of sizes (newborn-8 for girls; 0-14 for boys), a difficult task in a business whose only consistency is change.
“Every day people call to sell, to buy. It’s always different; there’s no way to predict,” she says.
Ms. Williams schedules just four or five appointments a day, allowing an hour for each. While the customer waits in the front of the store, she takes the clothing to the back room. There she lays it out on a long counter, inspecting each piece. That way she says she can assure buyers that each item is “spotless – in really good condition and clean.”
Sellers have other concerns. “Clothes are very emotional. It is hard to detach them from experiences and memories,” she says, which is why she “reviews [clothing] privately.” Customers take home what she does not buy.
Ms. Williams is not sure whether the recession is positively affecting her business. She says it is hard to separate the up tick after her move to the larger space from changes in the economy.
She is in touch with market conditions, monitoring and adjusting to retail trends. For instance, though Hand Me Downs has “always stood for higher-end brands,” she says she now has a particular reason to stick with them. “I look at all brands, but the lower-end retail stores have lowered their prices so low I can’t buy and sell at any profit. Gap children’s merchandise is going out on the floor at a 20 percent discount.”
She says her store “has dropped its prices [on clothing] accordingly.”
Hand Me Downs’ used baby equipment – portable cribs, swings, bassinettes, strollers and the like – has come down in price as well. Ms. Williams says she “uses the computer almost every minute” to see if a product is available new and what is the cheapest price at which it can be ordered from the Internet.
“Then I go one-half of that – and much lower if it is in used condition,” she says. “I try to be sensitive to new prices, because our customers are so price-savvy. That’s the only way to be fair, and being fair is very important to me.”
Quality counts. But Ms. Williams says, “Child safety is the most important consideration.” Like other children’s resale shops nationwide, she is struggling with the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) passed last summer for products made for children.
The law, originally aimed at toys made in China, regulates lead and phthalates. But because it is “broadly written” and includes too few specifics, she says, the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops continues to lobby extensively for guidelines to minimize shopkeepers’ risk. “2009 may be remembered as the year children’s resale died if Congress does not take immediate action!” reads a NARTS handout.
Hand Me Downs is no longer selling toys. Ms. Williams continues to sell equipment but constantly checks manufacturers’, government and parental review websites for recall and other information. It “complicates [things] from a business point of view,” she says, and adds time as well as “a level of sophistication” to her employees.
Regardless of time constraints, Ms. Williams takes the time to hang clothing by size in her store. “It’s easy to shop,” she maintains, choosing neatness over a widespread belief that “[resale] shoppers like to hunt for purchases.”
Most of the 6,000 pieces of spring and summer clothing and equipment Ms. Williams has purchased are on display. Despite the chill outdoors, moms and children are already looking at swimsuits and sandals; with such reasonable prices, they can afford to look on the bright side.