The sale of used clothing is one of the top micro-businesses in northern Mexico. The transport of used items across the US/Mexico border keeps some families fed and clothed.
There are those who dabble in the market and may have just a few items. The items might be for sale in front of their house on a clothesline or a blanket on the ground. The individual may have another business going on- a store, food sales or the like. Their items come from a range of sources- maybe their children outgrew it, maybe they need the cash more than the item, maybe they saw a deal and are now looking for some extra profit.
There are women- used clothing sales tend to be women- who have a greater commitment to the industry. They work the markets. Communities throughout Mexico, typically have their market days. Tuesday and Friday mornings could be in one location. Maybe Wednesday evenings are held in another spot. Saturdays they might head to another town altogether. Typically there is a registration fee to be paid to the group running the market of $M100pesos depending on the size of your stand. Some markets are more informal with fees paid each time a table is erected. These women have been putting up stands in the same markets for years. In addition to the casual customer, they have a loyal client base who has come to trust their selections.
Some women may purchase items in “pacas” or bulk. They may buy a hundred pounds or so sight unseen for the markets. With the average American tossing 68lbs a year, there are lots of clothes to be had. Pacas come rated by quality that also varies the price. Items that were discontinued or otherwise never worn receive the highest rating. Brand names- like Levi’s or Hilfiger- in good condition also can increase the cost of a paca.
The final stage is the woman who invests in a store front. She has a greater grasp of the small business market. Typically she can more quickly engage in a more advanced discussion about earnings vs operational costs beyond what is in the cash box. Some refuse to buy in paca. They don’t like putting their resources into this grab bag approach of items unseen. They prefer to cross the border and select item by item what they are going to take for sales back home.
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon is a mere two hours from the Texas border. Shopping across the border is so common that there is even a verb “McAlleando” used when somone is off to McAllen, Texas shopping. Although this is typically used in reference to the wealthier families of Monterrey who go to the malls in Texas in the same way that someone from Nashville might go shopping in Atlanta.
Used clothing venders might some may head to the state of Guanajuato, the most enterprising sellers of used clothing travel to the border markets or cross the border into Texas. The Texas market was particularly lucrative back in the early fall when it was $10pesos to the $1. We are currently closer to $14pesos to the $1- that takes a huge bite out of a small profit margin. Before the currency fluctuation, people claimed they could make double. Buy a shirt used in the US for $2 and sell it for $4. The more experienced sellers talk about the market like a long term investor about his portfolio. There are good times and bad. These are some of the bad times.
Back home, items collected by local charities, but not deemed worthy of local resale are boxed up and either sold directly in lots at stores or even auction style at rates ranging from 37cents to 55cents a pound. Many of the items are taken to market with their original Goodwill or Salvation Army tags. By one estimate 50% of donated clothing is sold back to the same workers who made them.
Typically those who cross the border for clothing sales have documentation. Following a rigorous application process that centers around current employment and a vague assessment of your likelihood of returning to Mexico, a ten year visa can be granted. These folks cross the border to bring items back in for resale. The Mexican government has laws against the import of used clothing for resale. The number of items is vague. The customs agent tries to establish a sufficient number of items for the length of your stay in Mexico. Anything else can be heavily taxed.
The government believes the import of such large quantities of used clothing is hurting local manufacturing. The government hasn’t necessarily acknowledged the importance of cheap clothing to poor families. An quick look at the Sears at Monterrey’s Liverpool Mall is a good example. For the most part the items have approximately the same prices as any Sears back home. Same can be said for the Palacio de Hierro, a high end mall in Latin America’s swankiest zip code, San Pedro. This mall targets family incomes of $250,000 and higher- that’s dollars. A shirt for $1.50 or shoes for $3 can go along way to stretch the meager earnings- items not available at Liverpool or Palacio de Hierro.