STYLE

'Christmas in August': Back-to-school is busy season for networks of online shoppers

07/07/2015 10:09 EDT | Updated 07/07/2016 05:59 EDT
While many parents hit the stores to find their children's back-to-school wardrobes, the online marketplace also buzzes this season. And for some dedicated shoppers, it is more than a convenient place to buy clothes.

It's a subculture.

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FINDING A NICHE

"We all share a common love for children's clothing, which not many of our real-life friends understand," says Jennifer Randeau, a mother of three from Mystic, Connecticut, who co-founded and now runs the "MiNi BoDeN ReSeLl" Facebook page, which she says has more than 10,000 members interested in buying and selling kids' clothing by the British designer brand Boden.

Similar Facebook resell boards have been created around other brands for boys and girls, such as Janie and Jack, Gymboree, Hanna Andersson and Tea Collection. Other groups focus on a specific location, gender or age group. Shoppers can zero in on what they like or need, and connect with products and people in a way they can't in the real world.

Randeau prefers Facebook BST (buy/sell/trade) boards, as they are sometimes called, to conventional shopping, consignment or online auction sites. Buyers can ask specific questions and often avoid high shipping costs, she says, while sellers can avoid the cuts and fees typical of consignment and online auction sites.

"Many of the boards develop a very strong sense of community," Randeau says. "You make 'friends' as you buy from and sell items to people. You meet a lot of people that you may not otherwise cross paths with. A lot of great moms help each other out with ISO's, matches and deals in general."

An "ISO" is an item somebody is "in search of." Like many places online, the for-sale groups tend to establish their own rules and use a language that might look cryptic to an outsider. There are frequently used acronyms — some of which have carried over from eBay and other online marketplaces — to describe the condition of items or other details.

Knowing those acronyms can make participants feel like they're part of a club. A quick primer for those not yet in that club:

NWT stands for "New With Tags." ''GUC" means "Good Used Condition." An item that is "hard to find," because it's from an older line or was part of a limited run, might be labeled "HTF." A picture somebody posts of her daughter sporting a new coat from a retailer might carry the label "IRL," which stands for "In Real Life" (as opposed to the posed pictures of models provided by the brand).

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MORE THAN JUST CLOTHES

While day-to-day operations on these for-sale groups (Facebook's official name for them) might seem to be business as usual, with sellers listing merchandise and buyers posting their PayPal addresses, something deeper than a simple exchange of goods can occur.

"These groups have come together in enormous proportions to rally around one another in times of sorrow and times of joy," says Sarah Blevins, who runs the blog "Our Little Life Style," where she documents her children's activities and wardrobes. She calls back-to-school shopping season "Christmas in August."

Blevins' example is the boutique brand Matilda Jane, whose Facebook resell groups have recently seen an outpouring of mourning and remembrance after the brand's founder's death from cancer.

Members of the popular "MJ Addicts" Facebook group and other resell groups created around the Matilda Jane brand honoured founder Denise DeMarchis by posting "PIF" ("Pay It Forward") listings of free items that would go — in DeMarchis' memory — to lucky winners chosen at random. The items would be labeled with a "DD" on the tag, indicating that they were gifts inspired by DeMarchis' life and should only ever be given away, never sold.

"That passion is something that you just simply can't buy at the mall," Blevins says.

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SHARING DEALS

It's the giving spirit — that idea that mothers support other mothers, even as they shop — that inspired graphic designer Sarah Trainor to create her website SampleSaleMom.com. There, she shares links to flash-sale sites that focus on clothing, accessories and toys for children. Websites she links to, such as Zulily, Gilt, MyHabit and Rue La La, offer daily markdowns on name-brand items for a short period of time, and many offer incentives to first-time shoppers and those who refer others to their site.

Trainor started the website in 2011, when she realized that by sharing a link to a flash-sale site where she bought a deeply discounted Smart Gear wooden bike for her son, she earned $330 in referral credits to the site. It was a win-win.

"I thought I should use my design skills to set up a website and accompanying Facebook page to share the great sales I was able to find online," said Trainor, who lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

"It's really satisfying to track down an incredible deal on something, and then it's even better to share it with other people and hear their excitement about it too," Trainor says.

The best advice to back-to-school shoppers that she can share right now? Get online.

"You can see much more in much less time," Trainor says.

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