“$32 for a sweater?” I nearly shouted during my last shopping excursion to the local mall. Sure, the sweater was cute: a bright green and yellow flower adorned the equally bold hot pink fabric, while white flower-shaped buttons topped it off. If the sweater was for me, I might not have had to pick my chin off the floor after seeing the price; since it was for my daughter, I couldn’t help but gawk. The sweater I was wearing could have easily made three or four tops for my pint-sized princess. I put the overpriced sweater down and slowly backed out of the store.

Resigned To Consign

When my daughter was a newborn, I wouldn’t have blinked at such lofty prices for children’s clothing. After all, with your first baby, you’re obsessed with all things cute – and all things new. With a first child, buying second hand doesn’t occur to you. But when you find yourself unexpectedly pregnant with baby #2 the same week that you told your boss you were quitting your job, you start to see things a little differently.

So it was that I started shopping at kids consignment sales when my daughter was two years old and my son was still in utero, the approximate size of a walnut. Rather than shell out several hundred dollars to stock my daughter’s wardrobe for the coming winter, I bypassed my usual haunts like Gymboree, Children’s Place, and Osh Kosh, opting instead to surf the Internet in search of upcoming fall and winter clothing consignment sales.

A website called Consignment Mommies guided me in the right direction. Consignment Mommies catalogs kids consignment sales nationwide, breaking them down by state and city. I quickly found a handful of consignment sales in my town, and plotted my course. I’ll admit, I wasn’t all that thrilled. As a consignment sale newbie, I was dubious over the quality of clothing I’d find at the sales. Would they have the sizes I needed? The styles I wanted? Would I be able to save enough money to justify buying secondhand?

The Consignment Experience

My first sale showed me how popular the idea of buying consigned clothes – especially for children – has become over the past several years. I made the mistake of leisurely showing up at 9:15am, a full 2 hours and 15 minutes after the sale opened to the public. Bad move. By the time I arrived, the checkout lanes were packed, each early-bird mom carrying loads of adorable clothing. The racks were picked over, with nothing but overpriced or, quite frankly, ugly items left to choose from. I left the sale empty handed.

But, I’d taken away a valuable lesson: the early bird does indeed catch the worm at kids consignment sales. The next weekend, with this knowledge fresh in my mind, I joined dozens of other eager moms in line outside a local preschool roughly 15 minutes before the sale doors even opened. We all rushed the building, like Walmart shoppers on Black Friday, frenzied to find a $35 Gymboree Christmas dress on consignment for $8. I loaded up on as much as my two pregnant arms could carry – that’s when I learned the second rule of consignment shopping: bring a large tote to carry your intended purchases. Unable to carry everything, I laid a small pile of clothing in an unoccupied corner of the preschool gymnasium, hoping to make two trips to the checkout counter. Big mistake: when I returned, the pile was gone, likely scooped up by another mother with children the same genders and ages as my own. That brings me to consignment sale rule #3: don’t set anything down unless you don’t want it.

By the end of a month’s worth of weekends, I’d attended seven different consignment sales across my area. Some, I soon found, were better than others. Large churches with attached preschools seemed to have the largest selection, while smaller, community churches without affiliated schools lacked a diverse supply of clothing. In all, I amassed:

  • 3 pairs of jeans for my daughter
  • 2 pairs of corduroys for my daughter
  • 1 heavy winter coat for my daughter
  • 1 lighter winter fleece coat for my daughter
  • 1 pair of rain boots for my daughter
  • 2 pairs of tennis shoes for my daughter
  • 3 pairs of dress shoes for my daughter
  • 8 winter dresses for my daughter
  • 6 transitional (fall or spring) dresses for my daughter
  • 15 tops for my daughter
  • 4 skirts for my daughter
  • 3 sets of pajamas for my daughter
  • 10 newborn size onesies for my unborn son
  • 10 0-3 month size onesies for my son
  • 10 3-6 month size onesies for my son
  • 7 sleeper pajamas for my son
  • 5 pairs of pants for my son
  • 5 pairs of shorts for my son
  • 1 bathing suit for my son
  • 1 light jacket for my son
  • 15 shirts in various sizes and styles for my son

In all, I bought 113 items for my two children and paid $212.50 – meaning each garment cost me, on average, less than $2.

My Rules for Consignment Sales

In my first week of shopping kids consignment sales, I learned three valuable lessons which I’ve already discussed. In case you missed them, here’s the executive summary:

  1. Arrive early. The later you arrive, the more likely that you won’t find the sizes and styles you want, especially if you’re looking for high-demand sizes.
  2. Bring a bag or a laundry basket to carry all your intended purchases.
  3. Don’t put anything back on the rack with the plan of coming back to find it at a later time. High quality, well priced items go quickly at consignment sales, and it’s unlikely you’ll get a second chance.

Since then, I’ve picked up many other tips for buying secondhand merchandise at consignment sales:

  • Be aware of which sizes are most in demand. I’ve found that clothing for babies and toddlers – basically sizes 2T and under – is widely available. Why? Because kids don’t wear clothes as rough at this age. Also, since they grow so quickly, they often grow out of clothes before they really have a chance to wear them in, giving parents a surplus of gently used items to consign. As children age, they start to wear clothes for longer periods of time, meaning it’s less likely you’ll find a pair of 4T jeans in great condition. That’s why I always start a sale by shopping for my daughter – who wears sizes 4 and 5 – then wrap up by shopping for my son, who wears 18 and 24 month sizes.
  • Know what categories are most popular. Shoes are notoriously hard to find at most consignment sales, especially once a child starts walking and actually wears through their shoes. Likewise, gently used baby gear – things like a double jogging stroller or an infant travel system – go quickly. There are always a plethora of toys at sales, and the competition for them isn’t nearly as intense as for clothing and baby gear – so shop this part of the sale at the end of your trip.
  • Learn to identify a good value. Certain brands are worth more than others. For example, I’d never buy a Circo (Target’s house brand) dress for more than $2, even if it was in mint condition. Likewise, I’d never buy a Garanimals (a Walmart brand) t-shirt for more than a buck. On the other hand, high end brands like Gymboree, Children’s Place, Ralph Lauren, and Janie & Jack are worth more, so expect to pay more. One year, I bought my daughter a 2-piece shirt/short combination from Janie & Jack for $6. Sure, it was more than I would usually pay, but I got a designer outfit for roughly 15% of the retail price.
  • When in doubt, buy a larger size. At children’s consignment sales, you don’t have the luxury of a dressing room, meaning you usually have to guess what will and won’t fit your child. I’ve learned over the years that Gymboree and Gerber run a little small, while Carter’s and Faded Glory run a little big. Since I always buy a larger size, I’m able to get more life out of my kids’ clothing. Take, for example, a madras-print dress from Ralph Lauren I bought for my daughter last spring: since I bought a 4T, she was able to wear it last year (when it was a little big, but not obnoxiously so) and will be able to wear it again this year (the size’ll be just perfect this summer). As long as her shoulders don’t grow too much, she might even be able to wear it next year as a top with shorts underneath.
  • Don’t bank on the half-price sale. Many consignment sales offer a half-price day at the very end of the sale. I’ve tried to take advantage of these deep discounts without much luck. By the end of a sale, everything is pretty much picked over – and in my experience, consigners selling high end brands at high end prices aren’t likely to allow their clothing to go for half-price (this is an option many sales give to consignors). You may find a shirt here or a pair of pants there, but likely won’t be able to do the bulk of your shopping on this day.
  • Come with a list. Just as with any shopping trip, you can go overboard if you don’t come in focused. Before consignment sale season starts, I always go through my children’s closets to see what they have – and what they need. I make a comprehensive list for each child and try my best to stick to it. I give myself three “bonus buys” for each child over the course of consignment season – giving me a little flexibility to buy them certain items that aren’t on my list without feeling guilty.
  • Know what you’re willing to pay. This year, one of my key “must haves” for my son was a pair of navy blue cargo shorts. At the first sale, I found exactly what I was looking for – but not at a price I was willing to pay. I sat there looking at the $3 shorts, asking myself if they were really worth it. Ultimately, I decided that the chances of me finding a nearly identical pair at a lower price were good, so I put the shorts back on the rack. It took me three more sales before I found another pair in the right size in good condition, but when I did, I was rewarded: they were only $1.

Since my first foray into buying secondhand for my kids’ clothes, I’ve become a consignment junkie. Maybe that’s why the thought of a $32 sweater gave me such a case of sticker shock. After all, I’ll be able to get that same sweater at next year’s consignment sale for $5.

Reader, do you ever shop consignment sales for you or your children’s clothing? What are your consignment secrets?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke