Retail: Worn Out In Warsaw

All over Poland, second hand shops are falling out of fashion

Second hand shoppers in Kielce, in the boom year of 2009 | Photo: Jaroslaw Kubalski/Agencja Gazeta

Marshal Street, in the heart of Warsaw. A big, burly guy is standing in a crowded department store looking extremely happy. Holding two jackets, one of them guaranteed to be leather, he is headed straight to the checkout line. He hollers to his girlfriend that he had made his selections – so she’d better hurry up with hers.

In one shopping centre, it’s possible to find sweaters, trousers, jackets, shirts, handbags – you name it – for ridiculously low prices. Most are remaindered goods from the United Kingdom and still have their original tags, so it’s not, strictly-speaking, a second hand store.  But the impulse and the phenomenon are the same – and one that is particularly Polish.

A nation of shopkeepers

Since the fall of communism, Poland has made every effort to improve its image as a poor country full of small traders. But it is precisely that restless business spirit that led to the growth of an entrepreneurial subculture of small and large dealers in used clothing, who import wares by the ton from western Europe.

“The market is already full,” complained the owner of one of the smaller chains importing “fresh” goods from the U.K., according to the Polish daily Gazeta Prawna as early as 2009. “Today you can’t just start a small shop in a housing estate anymore.” At the time, discussions of second hand stores in Polish online fora were at their height, with people sharing advice on how to get started and make it in the business.

Until recently, used clothing stores were on every corner in Polish cities, and for a long time, and regardless of income, no one was ashamed of shopping there. Last year, HBI Polska, a marketing firm, registered 25,000 second-hand clothing shops, some 3,000 more than the year before. The resulting volume of second-hand clothing imports was staggering: 100,000 tons in 2009, according to the Polish Federation of Apparel and Textile Industry Employers, up from 85,000 in the previous year. The main source country is England, but Sweden and the Netherlands also figure heavily. German goods, by contrast, are not very popular among the shop owners, as Germans are known to give away their clothes and shoes in too worn a state.

Thanks to Poland’s liberal brand of capitalism, starting businesses was easier there than, say, in the Czech Republic. But this has also resulted in widening social inequalities. According to figures of GUS, the Polish statistics office, unemployment jumped from 6% in 1990 to 16% in 1993, and peaked at around 20% in the early 2000s. While the jobless rate has since declined to around 12% today, the structural reforms of the 90s created a group of long-term unemployed, dependent on state support.

Hence even today, in big cities such as Warsaw and Katowice, and the destitute regions of Podkarpacie and the surrounding area of Lublin, many people still rely on super-cheap, used garments, often sold to the customer by the kilogram, as their only source of clothing.

Made in Poland

Now, however, a major shift is underway. Poland is growing richer and building one large shopping centre after another. In mid-2011, the country had 378 shopping centres, according to Cushman & Wakefield, a consultancy. Since the first one opened in 1993, an average of 500,000 square meters of retail space were added each year. Today, developers are moving from big cities to smaller and middle-sized ones.

Yet, strikingly, the shop windows are filled with domestic brands, such as Reserved, Tatuum, and Vistula. Polish footwear and clothing manufactures have successfully held their market share for mid-price goods, withstanding the cheap Chinese and expensive French and Italian competition. Poland’s most successful fashion label, according to the financial daily Rzeczpospolita, is one called Reserved, which registered a 20% growth in sales in 2011. The owners, LPP Group, have announced ambitious expansion plans and are set to launch an additional brand this year.

Just two years ago, the weekly Polityka ran an article about how Poland imported everything from the West – from clothing and refrigerators to cars.

Today, this is less and less the case. Weathering the financial crisis, Poland posted a real GDP growth of 4.3% in 2011, compared to the EU average of 1.5%, according to Eurostat. As the Poles grow wealthier, they are increasingly turning to domestic brands as an attractive alternative to western imports of both the luxury and the second hand variety. And Polish clothiers are increasingly moving into western European brands’ home turf.

For example, some companies from Bialystok – the largest city in north-eastern Poland, and the traditional centre of lingerie manufacture – sew garments for the most renowned European brands and are themselves penetrating the most demanding of markets.

“We have a store in Moscow and it’s going great,” the owner of the Kinga company in Bialystok told me. She had just returned with a contract from a trade fair in Paris.

A market for exchange

But it isn’t just shopping centres and rising living standards that are pushing second hand stores out of high streets in Warsaw and Krakow. They are also being squeezed “from below”. The daily Rzeczpospolita recently noted the growing number of “clothes exchanges” where parents – especially mothers – swap children’s clothes and toys without money changing hands. Such clothes swaps have already sprung up in the cities of Poznan, Torun, and Warsaw.

“These exchange markets are already competition for second hand clothing shops, which aren’t even that cheap anymore,” one regular participant related.

In the Poland of the early 2000s, grassroots entrepreneurs seized the opportunity of re-selling western Europe’s unwanted goods in their home country – and did well by it. Now, increasing demand for mid-price fashion among the middle class is driving out second-hand stores just as it drives the growth of domestic clothing manufacturers. At the same time, those who have been left behind by Poland’s economic growth are trading children’s clothes for free. That, too, is entrepreneurship.


Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where a version of this article originally appeared and was translated from Czech by Transitions Online. The article has been updated and expanded for The Vienna Review.

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