Australia's second-hand trade is booming as people clear out cupboards in lockdown

Second-hand retailers in Australia are seeing more people donating unwanted items amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as shopping for pre-loved clothes, accessories and equipment online.

Kirsta Hawkins with her secondhand clothing in Melbourne.

Kirsta Hawkins runs two second-hand clothing stores in Melbourne. Source: SBS

Alex Leung left his career in finance to start re-selling luxury handbags. 

It was a good move, the 35-year-old says. 

“Our bag sales have tripled during coronavirus,” he told SBS News. “Our inbox is constantly flooded out, and we are actually struggling to even process all the queries.”

“A lot of people may have lost their jobs, so they're clearing out their cupboards and they're selling some of their items, and some are quite valuable.”

Alex Leung traded a career in finance to start his own business.
Alex Leung traded a career in finance to start his own business. Source: SBS

Alex and his wife Angela live close to the business, The Purse Affair, in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley.

Alex comes from an entrepreneurial family who migrated to Australia from Hong Kong. His father gave up a career as an executive chef and his mother ran a successful beauty business. 

“When they migrated in 1991, they gave all that up for us and for the family. We had to start again with nothing. We lived paycheck to paycheck.”

Having watched his family start over from scratch, running his own business has become a source of great pride. 

“Four years ago I transitioned to running this business full-time, and it's grown around 500 per cent every year in terms of revenue. And we are still growing,” he said. 

This month, the couple started gifting unwanted bags to not-for-profit Fitted for Work, which helps disadvantaged women into the workforce. Many are survivors of domestic violence.

“We offer our customers a voucher for $50 to donate any bag. It doesn't have to be luxury, it just needs to be appropriate.   

“We hope that by giving a woman a handbag or an accessory for an interview, we can empower her to become financially independent.”

Kirsta Hawkins, founder of Melbourne second-hand clothing retailer Mutual Muse in Brunswick, is also seeing a sharp rise in unwanted clothes being offered for sale online.

“One of the first things that everybody does when they're stuck at home and locked down is clean out their bedroom and their wardrobes," she said.

“So everyone is getting rid of some of the stuff that they don't need anymore.”

Kirsta moved to Australia from Phoenix in America’s southwest eight years ago. Despite having no retail experience, she has built a thriving business across two stores.  

Her store in Thornbury is temporarily closed along with most of Melbourne's retail sector under the Stage 4 coronavirus restrictions.

“It's really strange to see Brunswick so quiet at the moment because usually there are so many shoppers walking around,” she said. “But our online sales are through the roof right now. People are definitely spending more time on their phone and on the internet.

“A lot of people are out of work or have less work, and see second-hand options as better value."

It’s the same story in North Sydney where Bridget Knox runs pre-loved clothing and accessories boutique Studio61.

“This year, during the pandemic, it’s been an absolute rollercoaster,” she said. 

“Earlier in the year, we were very lucky to get some government support, like business grants and JobKeeper, and that enabled us to keep everybody employed and build a really fabulous online platform.

Bridget Knox says recycling secondhand clothing benefits the environment.
Bridget Knox says recycling secondhand clothing benefits the environment. Source: SBS

“It’s been a nailbiting time, but online sales kept bubbling over.

“What we're finding now, is that our customers don't want to go to the mall and they're really happy to come and shop locally and to support a local business.” 

Bridget buys and consigns quality items and also does her own repairs to give a piece of clothing a new life.

“We know that a lot of fashion ends up in landfill, particularly low-quality fashion. It doesn’t last and can't be mended, or isn’t worth the cost of mending," she said.

“A well-made bag, coat, or pair of shoes can be repaired or cleaned, and somebody else can enjoy them for years to come. So we believe that by having a store like this, we're helping to keep items out of landfill.”

Online marketplace Gumtree, which has seven million monthly visitors, estimates the second-hand market is worth $43 billion annually.

“That broadly equates to over $5,000 of unwanted items in every single house,” said managing director Mark Kehoe.

The site lists items for free and makes income from online advertising. With rising unemployment and varying lockdowns across the country, Gumtree has recorded several spikes in people shopping online.

Gumtree's Mark Kehoe says more Australians are trading online during the pandemic.
Gumtree's Mark Kehoe says more Australians are trading online during the pandemic. Source: SBS

“During the initial nationwide lockdown, there was an increase of 400 per cent in searches for gym equipment, barbells and bench presses, while people were obviously working from home," he said. 

“As restrictions eased, exercise shifted from the house to outside the house, and we saw a 65 per cent increase in searches for mountain bikes.

“During Melbourne's Stage 4 lockdown, searches are once again focussed on exercise equipment, musical instruments and gaming.”

According to internal Gumtree research, millions of Australians are selling online to free up cash to pay for living expenses, debt, rent or mortgages.

Mr Kehoe said 66 per cent of Australians spent more time online buying and selling during lockdown, and with rising unemployment, the trend is set to continue.

“In this period of the pandemic, which leads to social disconnection, selling online allows you to connect with many different people who are interested to buy your product. And that's kind of fun as well.”

5 min read
Published 15 August 2020 at 3:20pm
By Sandra Fulloon