• 3 minute Read

The Cluttered Closet That Launched A $25 Million Business

When a shopaholic mom needed to clean house, she experimented with online retail–and became an entrepreneur.

The Cluttered Closet That Launched A $25 Million Business
[Photo: Flickr user Julie Robertson]

It started with old video games. It was the late 1990s, and former New York labor attorney Linda Lightman was helping her kids clean out their growing collection. The video game store was offering just $5 for titles that originally sold for $50, so Lightman’s son told his mom about this “thing called eBay,” a relatively new auction site.

“We listed a few games to see what would happen, and they sold for close to retail,” says Lightman. “I was hooked.”

When the games were gone, Lightman started looking for other things to sell. A self-professed shopaholic, she often brought her designer clothes to a local consignment store to make room for new. At the time, eBay sellers were largely in categories such as antiques, collectibles and electronics, but Lightman decided to give apparel a try. A fashion lover, she took time to photograph her clothing and write descriptions that helped shoppers envision themselves in her garments. Using the eBay ID ‘Linda’s Stuff,’ she quickly became a favorite seller.

“No one was doing this at the time,” says Lightman. Soon friends asked Lightman to sell their stuff, and through word of mouth and baby steps “Linda’s Stuff” became a full-fledged business in 2001, specializing in high-end clothing and accessories.

Starting Small

In the beginning, Lightman wore all of the hats, photographing merchandise, writing copy, listing items, shipping sales and answering questions. As she grew, the first thing she did was to hire a photographer. By 2006, 20 employees were helping her with all aspects of the business that was being run out of her house. That year Linda’s Stuff moved into a 5,000-square-foot office space, and every two years since then, the company has about doubled in sales, staff, and the size of its surroundings.

Today Lightman employs 110 people, operating out of a 72,000-square-foot Philadelphia-suburb warehouse. The largest consignment seller of clothing and shoes in the world, Linda’s Stuff had gross sales of $25 million in 2013, and currently has an inventory of more than 140,000 items for sale, ranging in price from a $12 cocktail ring to a $34,999 Karl Lagerfeld sable coat.

Focus On The Details

Lightman believes she has been successful because she pays attention to the details. Employees are trained on numerous aspects of fashion so customer service reps can answer question and writers can create detailed descriptions. Eight professional authenticators verify that the designer merchandise is real. Traditional brick-and-mortar services are offered online, including personal shopping. And 25 full-time photographers shoot the pictures that Lightman calls the key to sales. “We’re always trying to make our pictures better,” she says. “When you’re buying online, the picture sells item.”

In consignment sales, the pendulum swings both ways. Lightman works hard to represent and deliver sales to her consignors at a price they feel good about. She also strives for accurate descriptions as well as quick, free shipping to create a great buying experience.

“We’ve built a client base that’s bar none because our first job is to build trust and relationships,” she says. “We have a return rate of less than 10%. That speaks to our team; we really care.”

Branching Out

In 2009, Lightman launched her own website to complement her eBay store. In 2012, the flash sale site RueLaLa approached Lightman about a partnership, and today she curates two handbag sales for them a month. And last year, Sears came to Lightman and asked her to sell Linda’s Stuff on their Shop Your Way marketplace.

“It’s all about giving customers choices,” she says. “These sites aren’t a huge part of our business, but they give us another presence online. Partnering with eBay was the best thing we ever did. It brings more eyeballs to our merchandise than anything else.”

Looking Ahead

In recent years, Lightman has seen a shift in the attitude around consignment clothing and she expects the category to grow: “Years ago, people were being prudent with their money, but they didn’t want others to know they were buying pre-owned goods,” she says. “Today, more people are coming to our site to buy stuff because they want to be green. It’s cool to ‘rebuy,’ ‘reuse,’ and ‘resell,’ and to say you scored great clothing for a fraction of the price.”

Often asked for advice from wannabe sellers, Lightman says it has to be a passion that drives you. “Don’t jump all in–we grew slowly with sweat,” she says. “We were the first in this business, and we truly paved the way for all the other consignment businesses. I believe anyone can do it.”

About the author

Stephanie Vozza writes about business, productivity, and really cool people for magazines, websites, and companies. She is the author of The Five-Minute Mom's Club: 105 Tips to Make a Mom's Life Easier and the founder of TheOrganizedParent.com, an ecommerce platform she later sold to FranklinCovey Products.

More

Video

More Stories