From vintage pieces to designer labels, consumers are moving online for the thrill of finding the perfect outfit.

Retail therapy may never look the same. The impact of coronavirus has led to a new work-from-home culture, a spike in loungewear and casualwear sales, shuttered stores, and a more sterile ambience in those outlets that have reopened. Countless consumers have tightened their purse strings and are shopping with increased consideration and revised priorities. According to the New York Times, a July 2020 Mintel survey revealed that approximately one-third of consumers have pressed pause on buying clothes altogether, while 32% are concerned about buying clothes in a store. This has created a boom in online shopping for secondhand clothes and offers new opportunities for retailers to recreate the joy of discovery in a virtual format.

The online resale market is set to outpace traditional thrift store and secondhand retail in the United States, rising from $30 million in 2020 to reach $70 million by 2027, according to data from retail analytics firm Future Market Insights. As well as featuring platforms such as Farfetch’s Second Life resale program for designer bags, ThredUp and Depop, the category has also been embraced by major online retailers including ASOS, which has had a vintage marketplace within its e-commerce platform since 2010. Prior to the pandemic, these channels existed alongside the more traditional vintage boutiques and flea markets—spaces that define the in-person shopping experience and are synonymous with the treasure hunt. Now, even these retailers are going online—and they may never go back.

Brimfield Flea Market Live, courtesy of Facebook

In May 2020, the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in Massachusetts trialed a pivot to Facebook Live broadcasts, in an effort to recoup lost foot traffic after the cancellation of its offline events. The format was so successful that the fair’s field owners and show promoters plan to continue using it, even when the event is able to take place again IRL. As Klia Ververidis from field owner Hertan’s Antique Shows told Architectural Digest, “It’s turned into a massive, massive thing that none of us saw coming.”

@shopgossamer for A Virtual Affair, courtesy of Instagram.
@garment_modern for A Virtual Affair, courtesy of Instagram.

Free People began hosting the West Coast’s iconic Rose Bowl Flea Market in a virtual format in August 2020, adding to the brand’s sustainably focused vintage portfolio and bringing garments from Rose Bowl vendors permanently to its website. A Current Affair, which hosts popular vintage clothing shows in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and New York, is bringing its community of more than 200 vintage vendors to Instagram Live for its periodic sales and has launched an e-commerce platform.

@shopwasteland, courtesy of Instagram

Smaller retailers are going digital too. California-based designer vintage outpost Wasteland launched its online store this year—its second attempt after an initial effort in 2014. In early September 2020, PaperCity magazine published “A Guide to Virtual Vintage Shopping in Texas,” which highlighted local vintage boutiques that had pivoted to selling on Instagram.

@annasui, courtesy of Depop

But the move to online isn’t a trend solely born from the need to reach shoppers stuck at home. Designer brands such as Rodarte and Anna Sui have recently launched Depop shops to appeal to the platform’s more eco-conscious Gen Z customer base with merchandise from previous seasons. Online platforms also give brands access to more social and community-based direct-to-consumer shopping experiences—essentially offering the digital equivalent of an offline secondhand fair.

With more dynamic, immersive ways to shop virtually than ever before, thanks to IG Live and Facebook Live, the exhilaration that comes from discovering a cool new outfit isn’t too far out of reach. Retailers and vendors have been compensating for the lack of tactile interaction with suspenseful drops and interactive, entertaining formats designed for the screen. Even the channels for discovery are shifting away from a traditional boutique or department store format to marketplaces that are more tailored and personalized, or better aligned with online communities and lifestyles.

The Yes

In the past year, a number of media platforms, including Complex and BuzzFeed, have opened marketplaces where their readers can find a curated selection of products from various clothing retail brands and designers. According to Glossy, 50% of shoppers who bought products from Complex’s new shop (which hosts brands including Off-White and Amiri) experienced Complex as the first point of discovery, before going on to buy more products from the brand through its own website. In May 2020, former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein launched a Tinder-style shopping marketplace called The Yes, which harnesses AI to predict a shopper’s fashion tastes—all customers need to do is answer yes or no to a series of outfits on the screen and they’ll be presented with a personalized feed of pieces, from Everlane to Gucci.

Pre-pandemic, e-commerce couldn’t come close to the thrill of certain offline shopping experiences, but brands are now embracing more innovative digital futures—expect these online formats to be far from temporary.