As back-to-school shopping kicks into high gear, resale clothing shops like Runway Fashion Exchange, 3121 Brooks St., are logging their best month of the year – August – as moms and kids hunt for new threads.

Brad and Ari Onstot, both in their early 30s, bought the Missoula Runway Fashion Exchange two years ago after watching their Great Falls franchise take off like crazy.

“It’s busier every day, steady constantly,” said Brad Onstot. “The more people learn about discount shopping/bargain shopping, the more it seems to grow. People are getting into that mindset that they can buy new and buy for less.”

Nationally, the fashion resale market has grown 21 times faster than the retail market in the last three years, according to a 2019 Resale Report by thredUP, an online thrift store.

The “secondhand economy” was a $24 billion powerhouse in 2018, according to thredUP. And the market is expected to grow nearly 1.5 times the size of “fast fashion” – those retailers with high turnaround and lower prices – within the next 10 years.

And indeed, business is booming at both resale shops and traditional thrift stores in Missoula.

Business models vary, but resale stores usually either consign items or pay cash, plus they tend to be more selective than common variety thrift stores, like YWCA Secret Seconds, which rely strictly on clothing donations to pass along to the paying public and various charity programs.

“Every thrift store is a little bit different, but we’re a franchise, so we follow a lot of the franchise policies that others don’t,” said Onstot, who only buys items purchased within the last year or two to keep his inventory current.

“We keep our clothes up to date and in style; I like to call us a trendy thrift store – as opposed to stores that just take donations – because we pay out cash,” he added.

Several factors play into the Runway Fashion Exchange’s success: the popularity of life simplification guru Marie Kondo, whose show, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” airs on Netflix; Onstot’s franchise policy of selling mostly trendy, brand-name clothing, shoes and accessories; and a target demographic of teens and young adults.

“Kondo’s model helps people get rid of the clothes that aren’t being used by donating them or selling them,” said Onstot. “I think it helps people understand that they don’t need a closet full of stuff they don’t wear. It allows people to be more practical with what they’re filling their closets with.”

Currently, the hot brands Runway Fashion Exchange accepts on a cash percentage basis are Free People, Patagonia, Victoria’s Secret, Under Armour, Nike and American Eagle.

“For some of those brands that are really pop at the moment, we’ll pay a little bit more for what people want to wear,” added Onstot. “Old Navy we might not pay as much for.”

A growing draw is the Mom demographic.

“Definitely the biggest range we get are teenagers to mid-20s, but we do have a lot of Moms and kids with parents, so the Moms find a lot of things for themselves,” he said.

At Missoula's Runway Fashion Exchange, manager Loralei Curtiss  is selective in the brands and condition of clothing she purchases. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
At Missoula's Runway Fashion Exchange, manager Loralei Curtiss  is selective in the brands and condition of clothing she purchases. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The resale process works this way: Onstot buys mostly young styles, brand names, at a fraction of the price – provided the clothes are gently used or worn maybe once or twice.

“Customers bring it in, sell it and make some cash,” he said. “We have a lot of stuff that’s never been worn and that just sits in people’s closets. We’re mostly a women’s store, but we have guys’ selections as well. We’re definitely geared toward what you might see in the mall, except on a less expensive level. We’re like a used store for the mall.”

His staff sorts, hangs and displays the items, but customers must bring in freshly laundered, in-style clothing in near-new condition. Mostly, they sell casual wear, such as jeans, shirts, jackets and long-sleeved shirts.

“If it comes in smelling like smoke or has dog hair on it or has been sitting in a storage unit, we ask customers to bring it back,” he said. “Everything is stain free, spot free and odor free.”

Loralei Curtiss, 22, Runway Fashion Exchange manager, is especially tuned in to her customer base.

“I definitely think that being my age helps me know our customers’ needs and wants,” said Curtiss.

Not only are sales booming, but the number of Missoula resale clothing shops is expanding.

Brandon Bridge, an economist and director of forecasting at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said the number of “used merchandise establishments” in Missoula County steadily increased from 10 in 2008 to 15 in 2018. He did not differentiate among resale, consignment or thrift stores.

Montana data reflect a similar trend: In 2008, there were 102 used merchandise establishments across the state. By 2018, there were 119.

Magpies Chic Consignment, 1118 S. Russell St., leans a bit more high-end, although seven-year owner Laurie Morgan said she markets her clothing and accessories to all women of all income levels.

Her philosophy extends beyond the typical retail resale approach, as she welcomes customers into a supportive hang-out.

“It’s really good energy in this store – a really good place for women to hang out,” said Morgan, who services complimentary beverages. “It’s a really lovely atmosphere.”

Morgan works on a consignment basis. A consigner comes in, she displays the clothes on the floor for 60 days, and she pays 30 percent of the eventual sales price.

“I have such beautiful consigners, I can buy right off the floor. They bring in the clothing in beautiful, on hangers, pressed, boutique style,” said Morgan. “I treat my consigners very fair and I’ve had great success with them.”

Consigners receive a monthly itemized list of every item sold and how much it sold for.

“We’re business partners, really,” she added. “Honestly, in my store, my theory behind it all is I want every woman, every age, every size to find one thing for themselves. I get three generations who come in here, from teens to women in their 90s. It’s a very classy store; you can come in and get an outfit for a wedding or an outfit for the fair. I’m very particular; I have a great reputation.”

Even though she doesn’t accept second-hand ShopKo, Kmart or Walmart clothing, she refuses to exclude any customer shopping on a budget.

“You can get a nice outfit for $40,” she added. “Anyone can come in, find a really nice outfit and be treated special. I have beverages, chocolate kisses and beautiful bags. I want it to be a really lovely experience.”

Morgan’s business remains steady, thanks to a strong, reliable clientele base. As of Aug. 6, she reached 2,000 consigners.

“They are definitely a lot of people in Missoula who want to recycle,” she added.

In fact, another Missoula resale store, ReStyle Clothing Exchange, is so popular, it is expanding into a bigger space in September. Owner Alice Wimett said her shop is moving from 2704 Brooks St. B to 1010 North Avenue W.

Like most of the Missoula resale and traditional thrift stores, she advertises heavily on social media, where many shops announce daily or weekly sales specials – especially now that back-to-school shoppers are in the groove. Even her mascot, Reggie the Restyle Retriever, greets the regulars.

Wimett, busy with the move, mentioned that her business model includes charitable donations to local programs. Last April, her store donated $52,661 to various charities, including $4,405 to CASA Missoula, $500 to Mariah’s Challenge and $500 to the Jerry Downey Scholarship fund, according to the store’s website.

“At ReStyle, we are trying to better our community by raising funds for Missoula charities and reducing the huge amount of clothing waste at the same time,” reads the mission statement. “Our bag sales have now raised $55,661 while keeping thousands of tons of clothing out of the landfill. Thank you to our generous customers.”

Similar to the other resale stores, ReStyle buys and sells gently used brand-name clothing and accessories for teens and young adults. Wimett pays on the spot for accepted items, so customers don’t have to wait, consignment-style, for their items to sell. She pays out 40 percent of a particular item’s sales price. Restyle offers in-store credit at 50 percent, too.

In a more traditional business model, thrift stores like the Missoula YWCA Secret Seconds shop depend on donations only. Tellingly, business is booming in that sector, too, although primarily for other end-goals.

“Our sales are up; last year was our highest grossing year,” said Becky Margolis, YWCA communications director. “Last fiscal year, the stores generated over $1 million revenue for YWCA Missoula.”

The income supports the YWCA’s domestic and sexual violence programs, housing for homeless families, the GUTS! youth leadership program, racial justice initiative and administration costs.

“Our customers appreciate that all the revenue from Secret Seconds supports YWCA Missoula programs -- a local organization that provides services to local families and individuals,” added Margolis. “Our customers know their purchases and donations are making a difference in the community.”

In 2018, the Secret Seconds stores provided over $20,000 in “Secret Seconds Bucks” to eight other nonprofit organizations to distribute to clients in need. Regularly, the stories donate surplus clothing to the Bethel Baptist Church for a free clothing distribution program.

The original YWCA thrift store has existed since 1965. The Secret Seconds North, 1136 W. Broadway, opened in 2013 and Secret Seconds South, 920 Kensington, opened in 2003.