As befits a recording artist living in fashion-conscious California, Laura Cohn has an extravagant wardrobe stuffed with world-class labels and high-wattage jewelry.
But she's going for a different brand of shock and awe: Her two pairs of True Religion jeans, which can run more than $300 apiece, cost $35 and $40 at the Lucky You Resale Boutique in North Hollywood. She put down $23 for her Coach loafers. The Gucci sandals she wears to work? $25.
The 45-year-old Burbank resident is a longtime bargain shopper. Recently married, she bought her wedding dress for $20 on EBay. She rarely ventures into department stores, preferring to "buy designer clothes for next to nothing."
"It's pretty funny to see people's jaws drop -- they can't decide if they're going to smile or be sick," she said. "I love getting deals. It's more fun and allows me to do more with my money."
Boutiques are folding and fewer buyers and sellers are going to the shrinking number of retail trade shows.
But Cohn is getting a lot of company at consignment, resale and thrift stores, from parents shopping for back-to-school clothes to sales reps trying to squeeze cash out of samples no one else will buy.
"There's a panic right now, and everyone's scared out there," said Lucky You co-owner Dina Kimmel. "But resale is booming. Business for everybody else is bad, but for us, it's great."
Consignment stores sell goods for individual consignors, who technically own the item until the sale goes through and receive a portion of the transaction. High-end consignment typically is referred to as resale. Thrift or charity businesses usually stock their stores through donations and keep all the revenue.
In a survey conducted by the National Assn. of Resale & Thrift Shops comparing sales figures for April 2007 and 2008 at 185 stores, 75% said their sales had increased, 80% reported a jump in new customers and 65% noted a boost in suppliers. Just 10% said their sales had decreased.
But department store sales fell 5.7% from July 2007 to the same month this year, and the specialty apparel sector skidded 5.5%, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
At Lucky You, sellers have ramped up their spring cleaning, some coming in weekly when they once swung by twice a year. Even wealthier customers who once donated now consign, spreading the extra cash to baby sitters or housekeepers, Kimmel said.
After a while, most consignment stores offer to donate a seller's items to charity. But these days, sellers opt to take back the goods and try their luck elsewhere, store owners said.
And the consignor list at Lucky You gets crowded faster than it used to. Kimmel and co-owner Gina Canepa just bought 200 more hangers and now accept only brand-name items. "Everyone's calling and wanting to sell stuff, and we've had to push them back," Canepa said.
"I can't imagine what it must be like for pawnshops," Kimmel said. "We're lucky to be buying, but we also feel terrible because people are selling something so beautiful just because they need the money. It's bittersweet."
Some consignors are finding that the 30% to 50% cut they commonly get at a store isn't enough. So they head to consignment conventions, where they sometimes see as much as 70% of the proceeds.
Each of the 65 Just Between Friends franchises nationwide puts on about two events a year, where participants can buy and sell baby clothing and gear. In Tulsa, Okla., the site of the original event, 1,250 consignors gathered for the fall show, founders Daven Tackett and Shannon Wilburn said.
"Families that were living pretty well are having to stretch their dollars because what they're bringing in isn't doing what it used to do," Tackett said. "This is just a smart option."
The sales side of consignment is also swelling, with new customers each week, owners said. Pinched shoppers increasingly swap their old goods for other fashions at Lucky You, where a $395 Tylie Malibu bag goes for just $120, and the original owner gets $50.
"We have the same stuff as department stores, but who's going to know if it's been worn once or twice?" Canepa said.
It's easier for some customers to think of it as venturing into "gently used" vintage. Secondhand fashions catapulted into vogue several years ago, and "now it's the thing to do," Kimmel said. "People can't buy the stuff fast enough."
At Macy's or Nordstrom, Elisabeth Roberts, 70, of Burbank has to debate whether to spend money, but she rarely hesitates at Cele's Encore.
Sifting through $2 items outside the Burbank consignment store, the retiree and sometime consignor said the sour economy had forced her to combine shopping trips to save gas. The trick to buying resale is shopping patiently and carefully, keeping an eye out for rips or stains, Roberts said. She picked up a Chico's long-sleeved shirt that was priced at $14.
"Sometimes you find good things and sometimes you don't, but if it looks really good and I like it, it doesn't matter where I buy it," she said.