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Insights from Malaysian thrifters; Is thrift shopping still cheap and sustainable in the country?

Thrift shops have also increased their prices due to the cost of living and the weakening ringgit

A woman buying a piece of clothing from a thrift store in Malaysia
Thrift shopping, once on the fringes of fashion, has now become a mainstream trend in Malaysia, seemingly offering affordability and sustainability to its patrons. (Photo: Getty Images)

Thrift shopping, once on the fringes of fashion, has now become a mainstream trend in Malaysia, seemingly offering affordability and sustainability to its patrons. Over the past few years, there have been a diverse array of thrift stores tailored to various preferences and budgets.

General thrift stores like Jalan-Jalan Japan, 2nd Street Bundle Shop, and Baden Baden Bundle offer a wide range of merchandise including clothing, shoes, accessories, furniture, and household goods.

However, as thrift stores gain popularity in Malaysia, a question arises: Are they still as thrifty as before?

To explore these questions, Yahoo Southeast Asia interviewed seasoned thrifters, each sharing their unique journey and insights into the evolving world of secondhand treasures.

Thrifting but still looking stylish

Naquib Zahrim, a seasoned thrifter, reminisces about the golden days of thrifting when Uniqlo, Polo, and Carhartt pieces could be snagged for a fraction of their current retail prices.

"Back then," he muses, "you could find treasures hidden among piles of dirt-cheap items."

“However, the location and condition of the thrift store can affect pricing. More famous or well-maintained stores tend to have slightly higher prices, but for me, the better shopping experience is worth it. I started thrifting in 2006 during my first year of university. As a student, I wanted to look good on a budget,” the 35-year-old told Yahoo Southeast Asia.

Yet, despite the current prices, Naquib remains committed to thrifting, viewing it not just as a way to save money, but also as a testament to his styling prowess and a means to find fashionable plus-size options.

“A friend introduced me to thrifting, and since then, 95% of my wardrobe consists of thrifted items, from bags to outerwear. Thrifting became my preferred choice, initially born out of disappointment with the lack of clothing options for people with larger sizes," he says.

On what influences his purchase decisions, Naquib says the price of the items are still the forefront of his decisions. "I always head straight for the RM5 racks first," he says.

"Thrifting also challenges my styling and mixing skills. When given a dress code, I make it a point to thrift not just for myself but also for friends and family. I still wear items I thrifted back in 2006,” he added.

Thrifting to find wanted items at a fraction of the cost

For Zulaikha A, thrifting became a revelation born out of frustration. After a failed attempt to purchase a designer dress at full price, she turned to platforms like Carousell, where she discovered the same items at a fraction of the cost.

"It all started when I wanted to buy a designer dress that cost RM500. It took me 6 months to save up specifically for it. But when I went to the store, it was out of stock and they wouldn't restock it! So, I decided to explore other options. That's when I started browsing Carousell to see if the same dress was being sold there," she says.

"This opened my eyes to thrifting.”

Although initially enjoying shopping from online stores, Zulaikha says that the costs of doing so were becoming increasingly prohibitive.

“Thrifting offers solutions to everything! You get to enjoy stylish, branded clothes while saving more money,” she says.

After discovering Carousell, she also started to explore buying items at physical thrift shops.

However, just like Naquib, she too has noticed the price increase at thrift stores, although she said it will still remain as a more preferred option over fast fashion.

“After all, it's important to weigh the overall value. Maybe it’s just me being 'thrifty'?” she chuckled.

Thrifting to uncover hidden gems

Nuramira Nadia, another avid thrifter, echoes Zulaikha's sentiments about rising prices, particularly citing a notable hike in certain thrift shop branches.

However, for Nadia, thrifting isn't just about saving money—it's about the thrill of uncovering unique pieces that resonate with her style.

“I've been thrifting since 2016. I can't really say much about price increases in other stores because I shop at various places, sometimes online where prices aren't fixed. But I've noticed that a store I frequently shop at raised prices at one branch to RM20 per item, up from RM5-15 before, while other branches stayed the same,” the 27-year-old media practitioner said.

However, she also notes that when prices for goods go up, it defeats the purpose of thrifting.

“Some stores seem to raise prices based on brand - like 2nd Street or JBR Bundle, while others like JJJ or AW Japan Store keep prices consistent regardless of brand," she added.

"Later, in university in KL, I found physical thrift stores like Jalan-Jalan Japan and 2nd Street. Now, I prefer thrifting, especially for unique finds. It's like hitting the jackpot when you find something that's so 'you.' Thrifting also delays instant gratification since you have to be picky about what fits and is good quality. Now, half of my wardrobe is from thrifting! Price increases might not affect me much as a young professional, but I know that's from a place of privilege,” she said.

Thrifting to learn how to save money

Afiqa Khalieda, another dedicated aficionado of secondhand shopping, said purchasing clothes at thrift stores has taught her the value of frugality.

Describing on how she started thrifting, she said; “I started thrifting in 2012 when I was just fourteen. My dad took me on my first thrift store adventure when I expressed my desire for a varsity jacket, a trend at the time. Thrifting became my go-to shopping method, especially since I grew up in Taiping and later moved to Perlis."

A few Malaysian women buying clothes at a thrift store
Thrifting is not limited to the younger ones in the country, as older folks also find joy in doing so. (Photo: Getty Images)

She also said that her passion for fashion is what drove her to start saving money on items.

"With only RM10 - RM20 from my dad, I could buy more than five pieces, teaching me the value of thriftiness. I still stick to a budget, which helps with self-control,” the 26-year-old said.

Despite options for cheaper items, she prefers curated thrift stores as it offers a more pleasant experience.

“The extra cost covers space, ambiance, curation, and service, saving you from endless digging. However, not everyone thrifting has the same mindset. Some focus on reselling for profit, contributing to carbon footprint and neglecting the true essence of thrift. Despite challenges like rent and expenses, thrifting remains my preferred choice over fast fashion,” the thrift store assistant said.

“I consciously prioritise thrift and secondhand purchases, even as prices rise due to high demand. While thrifting gains acceptance, it's crucial to approach it mindfully, avoiding the pitfalls of consumerism and trend-chasing,” she added.

Experiences from a thrift store business

Meanwhile, Ratna, a small business owner of a thrift store called Joyful Jiggle, provided insight into the unsustainable nature of selling clothes at too low of a price.

A picture of a woman running her own thrift store in Malaysia
Ratna, owner of thrift store Joyful Jiggle, provided insight into the unsustainable nature of selling clothes at too low of a price. (Photo: Ratna)

“I think in a smaller business you can’t survive selling things for RM5 for example, because you’ll need a higher volume (of purchasers). In my perspective, there is a higher number of people coming in to drop off their clothes but lower number of people buying," 42-year-old told Yahoo Southeast Asia, while highlighting the imbalance.

On why she decided to open a thrift store, she says “I’ve been plus size all my life and my life’s work is to create spaces and more access for fat people. I love fashion and from a business of designing moved into thrifting myself - and realised it’s a gap in the market I want to help close.”

While prices may have risen and dynamics shifted, the allure of thrift shops remains steadfast for many Malaysians. Whether it's for economic reasons, environmental concerns, or a desire for self-expression, thrifting continues to hold a special place in the hearts of those who seek both value and style in their clothing choices.

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