Fur Coat 'Throwaways' Attract New Customers
By CARA S. TRAGER; Cara S. Trager writes on business from New
Published: March 6, 1988
The 37-year-old investment banker was shopping for a used fur coat recently at a thrift shop in Manhattan. The owner of three furs, she wanted another. She decided to buy it second hand, she said, because of the collapse of the stock market in October and an uncertain economy.
While admittedly unhappy about ''buying someone else's throw-aways,'' she was trying ''to be more conservative in my purchases,'' she said, adding, ''Before Oct. 19, I would not have considered coming here.''
For years, the used-fur industry has been a steady if small enterprise for a handful of businessmen in the New York area. Many say the 508-point, 22.6 percent crash on Wall Street has been a boon to sales this winter season, bringing new customers who never thought of buying second-hand before.
The business has also been helped by the dollar's decline and resulting higher prices for mink pelts, which have led to increases of 30 to 50 percent in prices for high-quality new mink coats and jackets. By contrast, prices for used mink coats have increased about 10 percent this season over last (Mink is by far the most popular fur, accounting for 60 percent of all fur purchases).
''This is the first and biggest increase of its kind in new mink fur prices in 8 to 10 years,'' said Sandy Blye, executive vice president of the American Fur Industry Inc., a trade association in New York.
No record is kept on yearly sales of used furs, but an industry expert estimated that they are equal to about 25 percent of new-fur volume. New furs generated $1.8 billion in sales in 1986 and about the same last year.
The used-fur business is not a fast-growth market, Ms. Blye said, but ''a strong, very solid segment of the fur industry.''
But if the financial markets have pushed some buyers to the used market, the proliferation of low-cost new furs has held other buyers in the new-fur market.
''The public is inundated with so many fur ads that they are not buying used, they are buying cheap imports,'' said Barry Shevit, president of the Shevit Brothers Fur Company, who has been selling second-hand coats to thrift shops and boutiques for 10 years. He thinks those customers have made the wrong choice: ''They are better off paying a low price for a used fur of better quality then the same price for what's being advertised.''
But others in the business say the lesser-quality new furs have in fact given second-hand furs a boost. Among them is Larry Cowit, president of Madison Avenue Furs Ltd., a store on West 29th Street in Manhattan that sells new and used coats.
According to Mr. Cowit, this has been the best season ever for used furs. That portion of his business, which typically enjoys an annual growth rate of 15 to 30 percent, jumped 50 percent this season, he said, and accounted for 50 percent of his total sales instead of the usual 25 to 35 percent.
''A lot of people just didn't have the money to buy new,'' he said. ''Those who never thought of buying a used fur coat are doing so because of Black Monday and higher mink prices.''
Two stores in Manhattan have helped define the rules for the second-hand market. Both have been selling used furs for 50 years: the New Yorker Fur Thrift Shop on Third Avenue and the Ritz Thrift Shop on 57th Street. Bernard Glassman, president of the former, said business had been excellent. ''More people are considering buying used when the new things are so much more expensive,'' he said.
At the Ritz, Keith Tauber, the store's general manager, said he expected his overall business to be better this season than last.
The Ritz, like others that sell used furs, buys 35 to 50 percent of its inventory from the public and the rest from furriers that offer customers a trade-in allowance for old coats.
Mr. Tauber, the Ritz's general manager, said his store refused to haggle with buying customers, who usually pay 100 percent more than the store's purchase price.
But in dealing with suppliers, ''There's no blue book value,'' he said. ''It's simply a give-and-take situation.''
Like other stores, the Ritz's offering price depends on the condition, skin and style of the garment.
Among those browsing at the store one recent day was Deannie Soleather, 53, from Weslaco, Tex. ''The prices of new mink coats are outrageous,'' she said. ''You're paying for the newness, but the minute you walk out the door the price is reduced.''
Sharen McKinney-Alston, 38, an assistant principal in Brooklyn, explained her purchase of a used fur this way: ''I can get a new coat for $1995 at Alexander's - or for that price, a used Revillon that on sale at Saks goes for anywhere between $4000 to $6000.''
Those who sell used coats say that some of their customers come back time and again.
Mr. Cowit of Madison Avenue Furs recalled the day five years ago when a wealthy older woman first visited his store, arriving in a stretch limousine. She left after writing a check for $7000 to cover her purchase of three used furs, two minks and a sable.
''She has become one of our best customers, coming into the store two to three times a year and bringing her friends,'' Mr. Cowit said. He estimated that she alone had bought about 20 coats. ''Believe me,'' he added, ''both she and her friends can afford new.''
Three months ago, the Fur Vault Inc. opened the Metropolitan Fur Exchange to buy and sell used furs at its nine Fred the Fur Vault stores, which until recently had been known as Fred the Furrier's Fur Vaults. At the exchange, customers trade in a used coat for which they receive a credit; it can be used to buy a second-hand or a new coat.
''Our purpose is to recycle the furs so we can get the benefit of making a fur sale,'' said Fred (the Furrier) Schwartz, the company's chairman. Although the average price for a used fur is $1500, the store, like others, sells some for much more.
Early one recent morning at the store in Westbury, L.I., a woman brought in a mink coat for which she said she had paid $5000 in 1978. It sold by day's end for $2295; the woman bought a new mink coat selling for $6000. With her trade-in allowance, she paid $3705.
In January the stores also began offering a ''buyback contract'' under which a coat may be resold to the store for a credit representing a percentage of the original price: 50 percent after two years, 40 after three, 30 after four and 20 after five.
Some used-fur dealers buy and sell coats around the country and abroad. Among them are Mr. Shevit of the Shevit Brothers Fur Company and Milton Corn of Joseph Corn & Son, both of whom said Italy was an especially strong overseas market.
Mr. Shevit said he had also found markets in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina; Mr. Cowit counts customers in Spain and France among his best clients.
Among special coats that have come Mr. Cowit's way were five to six furs that, he said, had belonged to the singer Diana Ross. He bought them in the early 80's from another furrier and resold them to a retailer in Denver ''in two minutes,'' he said.
''Her name was in the furs,'' Mr. Cowit said, explaining that a well-known name, like a prestigious label, adds credibility to a used coat.
''Women like to know,'' he said, ''that it came from a big retailer who would be selling it for a lot more than she paid.''
Photo of Jeff Geters, Ritz salesman, displaying a fur; Keith Tauber, general manager, with a customer (The New York Times/Vic DeLucia).
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