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Ladies and Gentlemen, ThredUP has Cracked the Sizzle Problem

By Jen Boynton

Let's play word association. Thrift shop: dust mites, B.O., bad lighting. And that's me, sustainability evangelist, spokesperson for the triple bottom line, associating. I still buy used, but we can all agree it isn't always the most pleasant shopping experience. Meanwhile, traditional e-commerce giants are breaking bones to get access to your holy dollar. Amazon lets me order baby wipes with two-day free shipping. The Gap lets me get a close-up on those skinny jeans, turn them around for a 360 view and read reviews from buyers like me. Zappos follows me around the Web tempting me with images of sparkly toddler shoes I chose for a close-up. It's very easy to spend money on the Internet.

Get a bunch of sustainability communications folks in a room, and we'll talk for hours about the sizzle problem. How to make sustainability sexy. That is to say, how to make the behavior changes we need to make into behavior changes we want to make. Sustainable communications expert Freya Williams just wrote a whole book on this very subject.

ThredUP, a sustainable startup we've been tracking since 2011, has cracked the sizzle challenge. And it's been quite a journey -- this isn't a company that fears a pivot. It started as a peer-to-peer marketplace for men's and women's clothes, shifted to higher-volume kids' clothes, eliminated the peer-to-peer element in favor of consignment, and are now a straight-up marketplace for used women's and kids' clothing. But there are plenty of re-sellers out there. What makes this one a standout is it's sizzle factor.

Beautiful, professional photos

Online shopping is just so darn easy -- with a click of the mouse or a swipe of the finger, products are on the way to your door. Traditional e-commerce has this pretty well locked down, but it remains a challenge for sustainable sellers.

Beautiful photos inspire shoppers, and ThredUP has them in spades. With high-resolution images, customers can get a feel for fabric and cut, and the photos instill trust when it comes to buying used. Good photography and positioning can actually transform smelly old thrift-store pieces into one-of-a-kind collectibles.

Help with sizing

One of the challenges with online shopping for used clothing is the wide variation in sizing between brands. ThredUP takes the mystery out of sizing by using your size in a known entity (say, a 6 in Banana Republic) and converting it into equivalent sizes in other brands.

But what truly impressed me about this e-commerce site was what happened after I poked around and left.

Back for round two

Fifteen minutes after I checked out ThredUP without buying anything, I received an email, with the subject line "Thank You." We all get a lot of email, and you know as well as I do how difficult it can be to break through the noise. This one, "from" founder James Reinhart did just that. Now, I'm sure this email goes out to everyone, but the tone is so personal:

It was so heartfelt that I decided to reply. And when I offered my feedback, I became invested. And I also went back to the website to double-check my impressions, and wouldn't you know I found a couple of adorable things for me and a couple for my daughter when I looked more closely. This email might be the most brilliant piece of email marketing I've seen all year.

As I added these treasures to my cart, I saw the discounts rise, 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent, percent off retail. I saved over $800?!

I know, I know, spending to save isn't *real* savings, but it certainly hits the delight button.

The delight didn't end there. After I clicked purchase, I received an expected email confirmation and a call-to-action, since I was officially a convert. But when I opened it, I was impressed yet again. ThredUP had turned my clothes, the ones I just bought, into a piece of beautiful affiliate marketing:

The psychological impact is powerful. These used clothes are put on a pedestal, reminding me of my good taste and shopping prowess -- I'd be crazy to keep this a secret. And so I shared.

The delights continued. My clothes arrived a few days later in a beautiful polka-dot box, carefully wrapped in tissue paper like they'd come from a department store. The quality was as-described and better.

ThredUP closes the deal with free shipping and free returns (for store credit), making it easy to take a risk on a new style.

These guys have cracked the code, and I can't stop thinking about it.

A transformation

Raz Godelnik told us in 2013 about ThredUP's pivot from peer-to-peer to consignment:
"ThredUP had a very clear choice to make. Either it continues to act as a great community service with little chance to succeed as a business, or it needed to make a change in its business model, putting business before community."

This little startup is all grown up (to the tune of $23 million in Series D funding last year). Growing up may mean a bit less of that feel-good community early adopters love, and it may mean being more particular about the used clothes it accepts in order to maintain high quality. But at the end of the day, any company that can make sustainable purchasing irresistible to consumers gets an A+ from me.

Interested in checking them out? Click here for $20 off your first order.

Image credits: 1) ThredUP 2) and 3) Screenshots

Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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