Why we turn our noses up at second-hand clothing: ‘A musty smell discourages you from browsing’

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“Floral scent? Is there a floral scent here?” Sezen Ornek can’t believe it for a moment, but then writes down that there is a hint of flowers in the air at Kringwinkel Circuit in the Nieuw Zuid district of Antwerp.

The survey she is completing was drawn up by Alexander Jaspers, a final-year student of applied economics at the University of Antwerp. He has her by the nose: no wild orchids in the thrift store today, nor fresh cotton.

However, these are the two scents that he distributes in various second-hand shops in Antwerp for three weeks as part of his thesis research. The purpose of his experiment? To test whether the smell in thrift stores has an impact on the experience and assessment of the quality of the clothes sold there.

To check this effect, he also introduces control days such as today, where no scent stick is used. Do people stick around longer or would they be more likely to buy if a second-hand store had a floral scent? He is writing his thesis about this, which is due at the end of May.

“And to think,” says the cheerful economist-to-be, “that I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on a high-tech chip company.”

Forgiving

The hypothesis comes from UAntwerp doctoral student Marie Das. Within the product development course, she conducts research into quality clothing and examines how we can improve the perception of second-hand clothing. The interviews she conducted for her PhD show that there are various barriers that prevent people from finding their way to thrift stores such as Circuit.

“In addition to the image of the stores and whether people in your immediate environment buy second-hand or not at all, your impressions and senses also play a role.” Our sense of smell is very important for this: scents evoke special memories and have a strong impact on our experience.

Thesis student Jaspers already learned from his literature study that “of all the senses, smell has the most influence on our emotions”.

“It still smells fresh here,” says Jim De Block after completing his survey. The 39-year-old Antwerp resident shops in the thrift store about once a month and often wears second-hand clothes. “Although I have to admit that I am probably a bit more forgiving of the atmosphere in second-hand stores than in other clothing stores.”

People who shop a lot second-hand, Das analyzes, experience odor less as a barrier. “But if you have little experience as a thrift store shopper, you will feel less comfortable with musty odors. Then you have overcome the barrier to entering a second-hand store and the smell then stops you from really browsing.”

Second-hand fan Jim De Block completes Alexander Jaspers’ survey about his experiences with second-hand shopping.Image Tine Schoemaker

De Block can certainly get in there. “Other second-hand stores can smell really musty. I wouldn’t stay there that long and think twice before buying anything.”

“The Think Twice, for example, can smell really dusty,” adds Emma Segers (23). She lives around the corner from Circuit, but is only now coming there for the first time. “I used to buy more second-hand than I do now. I too would be stopped from buying something if it smelled bad. Of course you can wash it, I know that, but I would still leave it hanging.”

Segers’ brother and friends are more devoted to second-hand than they are. De Block also experiences that second-hand is completely integrated into his group of friends. “Although I see that more often in young people than in people who are slightly older than me.”

A large-scale survey by Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Mechelen, to which Das refers, confirms the latter. About 55 percent of Gen Zers like to buy second-hand in a physical store. A quarter of them also do this online via apps such as Vinted.

For comparison: 3 percent of baby boomers are on Vinted and four out of five would not enter a thrift store. Two-thirds of all respondents across generations indicated that they never buy second-hand.

Fry smell

Evelien Addink (33) is an avid thrift store shopper. She calls herself a regular customer and has not bought new clothes for three years. She has also been working as a saleswoman in Circuit for a month and a half.

The aroma of second-hand shops is therefore anything but unfamiliar to her. “When I was a student we called that the typical world shop smell. It always reminds me of older people’s tobacco or mothballs.”

Student Alexander Jaspers helps PhD candidate Marie Das with her research.Image Tine Schoemaker

Evelien describes exactly that atmosphere as nostalgic. “It has its charm, precisely because there is that hint of old interiors. I understand that times are changing and that people want stores to smell fresh. Still, I would be sad if it disappeared. That’s like ordering fries in a chip shop that doesn’t smell like chip fat. Shame, right?”

Her customer De Block sees another reason why it wouldn’t be a good idea if second-hand stores smelled overly floral. “Imagine if this place was full of potpourri,” he says. “Then I would think the store has something to hide.”

The article is in Dutch

Tags: turn noses secondhand clothing musty smell discourages browsing

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