If there is anything more astounding than the rate at which children outgrow clothes, it is the high cost of replacing those clothes.
John Tugman of MRCA Information Services, a marketing research company based in Stamford, Conn., says the nationwide average cost of clothing a girl age 15 or younger was $420 in 1989. The average cost for a boy in the same age group was $345. For families with several children, the total could throw a budget off track.
But there is a less expensive option: secondhand clothes. They're called hand-me-downs if they come from an older sibling, but when they come from resale shops, some parents call them great deals.
"Oh, the stigma's faded. We get everyone now, even people driving up in Jaguars and Rolls-Royces," said proprietor Sue Young of Young Seconds, a resale consignment shop in Corona del Mar.
Added Barbara Smith, who operates Second Season Consignment Family Resale in Orange: "No one wants to pay the regular prices, especially for kids who are growing so fast out of their clothes. And now it's also the matter of being in a recession."
Operators at these and eight other Orange County "resale boutiques" say you can find such bargains as kids' after-ski boots (usually around $40) for about $6, boys' blazers (normally $115 to $150) for $25 to $45, and girls' evening gowns (usually $90 to $200) for $45 to $65.
And it isn't just the big savings--roughly 50% to 75% off most items, operators say. It's also the near-new or mint condition of their stock, which includes top labels in the children's field, and the carefully cultivated boutique atmosphere of most stores.
As in other regions, the turnover in the resale stores, with their low profit margins, have been high, but Southern California is considered prime territory. "We've opened four franchises just in Orange County, and we are aiming to at least double that in the next few years," said Dick Spehn of Children's Orchard, a national chain with stores also in San Dimas and San Diego County.
A recent foraging through secondhand shops for children's wear in the Los Angeles area yielded T-shirts priced at 25 cents, infant sleepers at 98 cents, pants, skirts and sweaters at $1.99, and winter jackets at less than $5. And many garments--including designer labels such as Baby Dior and Esprit--were in good condition.
The lowest prices--usually less than $5--are found in thrift stores run by charitable organizations such as Goodwill Industries, the Salvation Army, Children's Hospital of Orange County and local churches. The quality varies from worn-out to nearly new.
In these stores, clothes are rarely separated by size, and items without original tags indicate no size. At some stores, clothes are on hangers; at others, the merchandise is piled on tables in a tangled mass.
Consignment shops sell used clothing and divide the sales price, usually 50-50, with the original owners. Their clothes are generally more expensive but in better condition than thrift-store garments, and the sizes and prices are clearly marked.
Store owners say successful shoppers go without a list and look for good buys in their child's current size or the next size up. Hard-core enthusiasts will also browse through the smaller sizes to see if any garments have been erroneously marked.
More than a year ago, one shopper found a pair of Converse high-tops with a Magic Johnson logo. Price: $2. They had never been worn, and even though they were four sizes too large, she bought them. This fall she unearthed the shoes and gave them to her son, who had requested $137 Reeboks. The shoes with Magic Johnson's endorsement took the sting out of his mother's refusal to buy him the more expensive pair.
Parents and store owners say that as children grow older, they become choosier about their wardrobes. One consignment shop owner finds that toddler and infant sizes move quickly in her store, but sales of larger sizes are slow. By the time most children wear Size 7, they are quite opinionated about clothes, she says.
Says Vicki Morgan, co-owner of Little Orphan Overalls in Pasadena: "By the time girls reach Size 12 and 14, their mothers have quit trying to buy for them." Unless the girls come into the shop and pick out their own clothes, there is little chance the Size 12 and 14 items will sell.
For younger children there is an abundance of coats, sweaters and party dresses available at most stores, especially after the holidays when some parents clean out closets to make way for presents.
The one hard-to-find item is boys' pants, especially sizes 4 to 8. The original owner usually wears out the knees.
* CLOTHES CIRCUIT: Where to find the bargains in children's used clothes. E3.