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Test-swapping with ThredUp, children's clothing exchange founded in Cambridge

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 26, 2011 12:40 PM

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thredup2.jpgThe arrival of a new baby brings with it the sudden explosion of several things: laundry, plush toys, garbage, enough medicines and ointments to fill a small U-Haul, and clothing that, after being worn twice or thrice, is suddenly two small.

ThredUp is a clothing swap site that concentrates on that last problem, enabling parents to swap boxes of clothing that no longer fits (but is still in good condition). The company was founded in Cambridge in late 2008 by James Reinhart, then a Harvard grad student; in 2010, it raised $1.4 million in funding from investors including Cambridge-based NextView Ventures and Founder Collective, but the company also relocated to San Francisco. I joined the service last summer, and wanted to share my experience with it so far.

ThredUp is free to join, and when you do, the company sends you a stack of United States Postal Service Priority Mail boxes; these are what you use to send clothes to other members. You're initially asked to fill a box with clothes in roughly the same size range (say, 6-to-12 months), and all for the same gender child. You describe the clothes and check off some of the brand names (Baby Gap or Disney, for instance), but you don't need to photograph each individual item. Boxes are categorized by season (is it mostly summer clothes, or winter?) and whether they include tops, bottoms, or a mix.

For every box of used clothing you list, you're able to pick a box from the site's inventory. For each swap, you pay $15.95, $5 of which goes to the company, and the rest of which covers postage.

The first box I received through the service was a bonanza: it contained a vintage-looking "Star Wars" t-shirt and a "Thomas the Tank Engine" long-sleeve shirt with a little speaker sewn in that makes a train whistle sound whenever you press the button. There were two pairs of Old Navy jeans, a hoodie, and assorted other clothes: a dozen items in all.

The first box that I'd packed was selected by another user about ten days after I signed up for the site. ThredUp instructs you to leave the box on your doorstep, and says that it'll arrange for a letter carrier to pick it up. (I ordinarily would've been inclined to just drop the box off at the post office.) From there, the box seemed to have vanished. ThredUp sent me an e-mail saying that the letter carrier hadn't found the box, and when I spoke to my friendly neighborhood postal worker, he confirmed that he hadn't picked up anything.

The site's e-mail customer service was really helpful; staffers canceled the transaction and credited my account $5 for the hassle.

But then, almost a month after I set it out on my front porch, the box was delivered to the person who requested it. (Either it was picked up and misplaced by the Postal Service, or someone swiped it, opened it, didn't have a toddler-age boy, closed it up, and re-mailed it.) As a result, the person who received the box gave me a two-star rating on the site (out of four), complaining that the box had arrived late, and that "a few items were too worn to give away," but noting that she liked the shirts and sweaters I sent. I confess: I did cram in a couple pairs of pants that were more "family hand-me-down" quality than something that you'd turn over to a consignment store. In all, there were a dozen items in the box I sent.

Last month, my son needed some extra winter clothes, so I picked another box from the site. Shopping ThredUp was, for me, a slow process; while it's convenient not to have to post pictures when you're listing a box on ThredUp, the lack of images makes it hard to find clothing that you're confident you'll like.

I did finally find a box that looked promising, and submitted a request for it last month. More than two weeks later, I got a notice from ThredUp that my pick had been cancelled. Why? A ThredUp rep explained by e-mail that "sometimes people are unable to send their boxes due to illness, family emergencies, etc." (I haven't yet tried to find another box that looks good.)

I also listed two more boxes of clothes on ThredUp in December; the process is streamlined, and it takes only about eight or ten minutes to describe what's going into your box, and then make it public so other members can see it.

But neither of my two new boxes has been picked. That could be because the site doesn't yet have enough swappers hunting for clothes, or it could be that my two-star rating has branded me with the equivalent of the scarlet letter with other ThredUp members. (Update: I've since found takers for those two boxes, and the favorable ratings on the transactions — one box I dropped off at the post office, the other was successfully picked up from my porch — improved my status on the ThredUp site.)

ThredUp did feel like a good value when I received the original box of clothes, and I like the idea of reducing my household's consumption of newly-manufactured stuff. But since that original delivery, the site it has required too much of an investment of time and effort for me to want to keep using it. (It's easier to donate old clothes to charity.) And time, of course, is the one thing no parent has in plentiful supply.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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