Retail apocalypse is ripping through the United States leaving brick-and-mortar boutiques and mall chain behemoths alike wobbling on the brink of irrelevance as online shopping becomes the norm for consumers. The Atlantic reported the first third of 2017 has witnessed nine major retail bankruptcies, major apparel companies’ stocks plunging to new lows, and flagship after flagship closing their doors. The meteoric rise of alternative, often community-run platforms for buying, selling and trading goods online has directly crippled the retail industry. Shoppers, who are already conditioned to shop on sale, now have access to secondhand designer items at mere fractions of retail prices.
Alternative marketplaces are nowhere near a new phenomenon. In the days before sites like eBay, Y! Japan and Grailed, dedicated shoppers scoured flea markets, thrift shops and consignment stores alike for designer threads amidst piles of musty windbreakers and knockoff COOGI sweaters. Each independent, enthusiast-run online shop carrying marked-up goods initially purveyed through Rakuten mirrors my own foray into the world of e-commerce. In the 2000s, my middle-school self was conducting a legally-questionable scheme of funneling East Asian street fashion back to the United States to shill at higher prices on LiveJournal. As the internet has matured, the number of alternative marketplaces has multiplied and with each iteration they become more targeted and communal.
There is an obvious economic allure to alternative marketplaces. Sellers embrace a broad market largely free of third-party regulators and dodge the substantial middleman fees associated with traditional consignment outlets, allowing them to set their own prices and maximize profits. Buyers are fueled by a lust for deals that surpass even the most generous of seasonal clearance markdowns. One of my most treasured items, a partially disintegrating Helmut Lang bomber from 1999, was copped off 4chan’s fashion board for a paltry $70 when I was in high school. Alternative marketplaces become a powerful democratizing force within fashion, enabling people who typically couldn’t afford to pay retail prices to partake in the expensive and often elitist hobby of fashion.
While bargain hunting is the lifeblood running through the system, alternative marketplaces were founded – and remain grounded – in a desire for community. During the 2000s, the internet fundamentally shifted from a mere information database to a virtual realm that cultivated relationships. Forum culture boomed. Popular internet destinations like superfuture and StyleZeitgeist teemed with activity as aficionados of niche substyles they were no longer so alone in their interests. On forums, users discussed and dissected their adoration of esoteric clothing and it was only natural that they soon would use the same message boards to expand and shrink their personal collections.
Ironically, the very communities that forums fostered appear to have eventually destroyed them. As forums and their marketplaces ballooned, users craved better organization. The palpable demand led to the birth of Grailed, the first concentrated peer-to-peer marketplace for menswear.
“My first exposure to Grailed was just through some obscure fashion forum or something,” said Paul Cavaluzzi, who has bought and sold items on the site for around two years. “I ended up being frustrated with eBay for buying used clothing and was hoping to find something more consistent and reliable than people who sold their clothing on subsection marketplace forums.”
Alternative marketplaces have also infiltrated broader social media networks, particularly Facebook. In an October 2016 press release for Facebook’s Marketplace section – a native version of Craigslist with a glossier interface – the company claimed that more than 450 million people visited buy and sell groups. While Grailed perhaps holds monopoly over menswear, an increasing number of users are gravitating toward Facebook for their transactions.
“The primary factor in the rise of Facebook groups as marketplaces for niche fashion is convenience,” said James Vyas, who in high school began buying and selling streetwear through local Facebook groups as his interest in fashion developed. “Having sale posts pop up in the middle of the newsfeed you check habitually is definitely a plus for the platform.”
Convenience is one side of the coin, and a sense of genuine, appreciative community the other. “There are private groups on Facebook dedicated to specific brands like Undercover or Acronym, and these tend to be invite-only,” Vyas said. “If you are in one of these groups, you have a sense that what you put up for sale will only be looked at by other fans of the brand, and people will happily call out users that are reselling for profit, offering significantly below market prices or spreading misinformation.”
“I’ve made so many friends through buying their pieces or selling them pieces. We’d come to each other before making a sales post to check if I’d want it or he’d want it,” Forino said. “With selling, you can see what kind of person you’re giving away your piece to. I hate to sell my pieces, but when I do, I want each one to go to someone who’d give the piece some use and appreciate it.”
While consumers crave community, they value convenience even more so; targeted third-party platforms are now being sidelined by shoppers in favor of buying and selling through social media. Despite the rapid turnover in platform preferences, alternative marketplaces become the norm, capable of catering to the internet generation’s shapeshifting needs as traditional retail stores flounder.
While the perks of alternative marketplaces are admittedly irresistible, the dissolution of traditional retail is worthy of mourning. Physical boutiques have long acted as the original bastion and gathering points for local enthusiasts. As Edwin Negado, the founder of San Diego boutique Gym Standard, put it, “Without your community you don’t have a store, and without community you don’t have an identity…I want to be a key person, especially in my hometown, to kind of activate some of these young and up-and-coming talents, these makers of San Diego.” When I moved to Chicago alone two years ago, I found truth in Negado’s words and immediate refuge and camaraderie in the city’s sneaker shops. As the world becomes increasingly digitized, stores cannot be merely stores. They must find a way – be it through conceptual buildouts or coffee – to excite, stoke passion, instill wonder, and ultimately convince an audience that the tangible is still worth slowing down for.
Written by Leslie Zhang, you can find her on Instagram