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Are online thrift stores really a threat to the neighborhood ukay-ukay?

By AMRIE CRUZ Published Dec 24, 2019 6:00 am

Twitter discourse on online thrift reselling reached my feed last month, what with people debating between the high mark-ups and the “hard work” resellers put in to “curate” and authenticate their items.

Unlike most Twitter bardagulans, you’d have to acquaint yourself with a retail ecosystem to form an opinion — at least, that’s the case for non-pormaholik onlookers like myself. 

Like most things at the end of this decade, the thrifted fashion world exists both in an online and physical space. A friend of mine, who runs a pre-loved Instagram shop and chose not to be named for this piece, says that the Filipino online retail-for-less community is not that much different from an offline clothing market with different demographics and business sizes.

While physical thrift shops or ukay-ukays acquire stocks from Goodwill or similar places abroad, pre-loved Instagram shops have carefully selected products which sometimes caters to styles such as streetwear and vintage.

There are shops run by people like her who started by selling personal pre-loved items on Facebook in order to mitigate impulsive buying and earn pocket money while decluttering. Other curated shops are more tightly run with branding through signature feed aesthetics and posting styles. 

Most of the people who buy from IG shops are those who want to experience the aesthetic of ukay but not ukay itself.

Catpuke bassist Papat Catriz, who buys most of their clothes at ukays, says that stepping into an outlet is better than browsing online because it provides the thrill of bargain hunting, knowing that you scored a great piece at the lowest price.

Student Gelo Aurigue reveals that buying from Instagram is convenient but he likes taking the time to dive into what seems like a limitless number of racks in ukays. Both acknowledge that there are some people who don’t have the time or ability to go to physical stores and benefit greatly from online shops.

Meanwhile, for Alecer Galera and Leo Hilario, who are ukay clerks in Las Piñas, it’s better to buy direct because you are getting the same garment at a cheap and right price. They think that the advantage of online shops over ukays is simply that their higher prices make the items appear more sosyal.

But for an IG seller, buying from an online shop guarantees a laundered and curated selection instead of having to look for clothes in possibly uncomfortable conditions, where items are inexpensive but dirty and damaged. 

Power surge in the fringes

Ecosystems have actors which interact within or between overlapping niches and form relationships. I wanted to know if there was a gap between the regulars of ukays and IG shops. And if there is, is it as big as the imagined one that outsiders might have made up or exaggerated on social media? 

Shoppers notice that ukays have a more diverse market compared to online shops, which have a specific audience. The outlets that Papat visits are near a school and near a wet market respectively. They have shopped alongside students and senior citizens. In Gelo’s opinion, most of the people who buy from IG shops are those who want to experience the aesthetic of ukay but not ukay itself.

IG shoppers are a mixed bag but mostly made up of university students and young professionals. My reseller friend says that she has customers who don’t want to or don’t have time to thrift themselves and customers who love to thrift but are willing to pay for certain items, especially to support small businesses. She shares that running an IG shop is hard work that entails thrifting, laundering, mending, taking photographs and measurements, modeling, posting with descriptions, tabulating buyers’ details, going to meet-ups or shipping, and finding storage space in their own homes.

Ukays have a variety of customers but on days when there are new arrivals, online sellers swamp the stores to grab the branded items. Alecer says that while online sellers rush to their store when there are new arrivals, the general public crowds the store during sale season. The store Leo works at has a list of online sellers to contact when they have new arrivals.

Considering the intersection in their markets, I wondered if online shops are regarded as competitors of ukays. Consumers have differing opinions on the matter. Papat supposes the answer is yes since they noticed less college students going to ukays. They also mention reading about stores being forced to raise their prices to keep afloat. Conversely, Gelo considers the two as similar industries with different clients.

For ukay staff, online sellers are just their customers. Alecer says that he doesn’t care about what happens after the products are sold because they just do whatever their boss tells them. Leo says that they aren’t affected because ukays are practically everywhere and belong in a category of their own. Plus, the sellers aren’t anywhere nearby to redirect walk-ins.

IG shop owners on the other hand view ukays as one rung below them in the chain of supply. They count tiangges and bazaars with similar price ranges as their biggest competitors aside from each other; online shopping apps such as Shopee are also tough rivals.

Looming change

The digital age introduced online shops into the retail ecosystem. Looking into its impact on social media and the market, I wondered if it has altered the chain enough to shake things up. My shop owner friend says that Gen Z is being credited for killing Forever 21 but millennials probably contributed too. More people are seeing the merits of supporting a small business where the owner who does all the work instead of favoring exploitative fast-fashion companies. She believes pre-loved and thrift-based curated shops are an answer to the problems of sustainability, affordability, and lack of variety in styles.

But some consumers are wary of pegging thrifting as a rebellion. Papat doesn’t believe that online shops have taken over social media and worries about the accumulation of unsold clothes. Gelo is critical of a possibility of appropriating ukay and making surplus less accessible to the poor.

Alecer thought about starting his own online shop once. But ukay staff aren’t allowed to buy-and-sell the items themselves. And it was best to leave it to online sellers who only do it as a sideline. As a patron of online shops himself, he says it looks better that way. He’s content with sticking to posing for his own Instagram to mimic his style icons like Vice Ganda and Vhong Navarro. Leo says he doesn’t care much for online shops and that he wouldn’t buy anywhere other than an ukay. He adds proudly, “Mas magaling pumorma yung mga sa ukay bumibili.”