By Jennifer Coburn
When you walk into Karen’s Consignment Gallery, you’re going to see a lot of familiar faces. There’s Lee and Dave, who have each worked at the shop – located in the Loma Portal neighborhood of San Diego – for nearly 20 years. And a high percentage of the customers visit the 8,500-square foot showroom on a weekly basis to hunt for previously owned designer furniture, home décor, artwork, and jewelry. What changes constantly, though, are the treasures inside the store.
“We essentially have a new store every two months because pieces sell very quickly,” says Carlsbad resident Rob Murray, owner of Karen’s Consignment Gallery, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. “We are extremely selective about what we put in the showroom, and because we’re offering one-of-a-kind items, they get snapped up quickly.”
The way consignment stores work is simple: people who are moving, downsizing, or liquidating an estate offer their items to stores like Karen’s. The consignment shop may (or may not) choose to showcase the items in their store, depending on how selective it is. When an item sells on consignment, the original owner is paid for the sale, less a percentage for the store’s costs.
The hard part is building a successful consignment business, one where both buyers and sellers are happy with their dealings. But Karen’s seems to have cracked the code with a steady stream of both buyers and sellers returning to the store week after week, year after year. “It’s rare to be in business for 25 years in the same location, but we’re a neighborhood institution in Point Loma we’ve got something very special here,” says Murray. “We have customers whose entire homes have been decorated with pieces from our store, and others who call us whenever they are moving or redecorating.”
Case in point, Dave Mayer shows one of his favorite pieces, a buttery leather sectional couch. “This comes from a home in La Jolla where the couple is moving the San Francisco and is consigning everything exclusively with us,” says Mayer.
Walking around the showroom, Murray points out new pieces. A Tiffany reproduction glass table lamp. A whimsical Korean chest, hand-painted green with butterflies. An Asian, hand carved altar table, “This just came in, and it’s going to go very fast because a good designer is going to come in here and know that a piece like this can make an entire room,” he says.
Murray says the steady stream of new inventory is part of what makes Karen’s one San Diego’s longest standing consignment stores in San Diego. The other part is the expertise of the staff.
A seller recently came to the store with a weathered basket that was beautiful, but looked as though it had seen better days. He hoped to get $40 when Karen’s Consignment Gallery sold the piece, but veteran staffer Lee Kaercher has a pleasant surprise for him. “When I saw that basket, my heart started pounding because I knew it was something special,” she says. Kaercher put her degree in Fine Arts and years of experience as an antiques dealer to work and began researching the piece. She found that the basket, used by Apache Indians to transport water, was worth $800. The seller was thrilled and so was the buyer who was able to add the precious piece to his collection.
The retail thrift / consignment industry was a rare bright spot during the past recession, actually adding stores and jobs. There are now more than 25,000 resale shops in the United States and net growth in the number of stores has been growing at a rate of 7% annually over the past two years. The industry currently employs over 150,000 people and according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics will employ 175,000 people by 2020 – a 20% increase.
Karen’s has continued to grow in employees, sales and active consignors. Business is brisk and the inventory turns over almost entirely every two months. The store also adds about 20 to 25 new consignors each month.
“Shopping at a consignment store is a smart way to get great deals, but people should also take care to research a place to make sure it has a proven track record,” Murray said. “It’s one thing to open a consignment gallery, but in order to stay in business for 25 years, you need to satisfy your buyers and sellers, and earn the trust of the community.”