Most people agree that we should reuse more, but selling leftover things is often a cumbersome process. The second-hand concept of Busfrö keeps the circular economy spinning – and makes it easy for consumers to shoulder their new responsibility as suppliers.

“Many of our customers testify that they want things they get rid of to come to good use. But they don’t want to hassle with selling them themselves. The money is just an added bonus”, says Stina Qubti, founder of Busfrö Nytt & Bytt.

Every customer is allowed to hand in one bag per month in every product category, and is compensated with part of the profit when each item is sold. The process gives a second life to quality garments, and the Västervik store alone receives more than eight tonnes of clothes every month. Photo: Busfrö Nytt & Bytt.

“This is a kind of second-hand that might be unfamiliar. The concept is founded on environmental advantage, and that is what motivates us to keep doing what we do. But it also has to be fresh, modern and fashionable.”

A growing marketplace

Busfrö was founded in Västervik, Sweden in 2010. In the beginning, it was all about children’s clothing: Stina Qubti wanted to build a marketplace where parents could meet in person to trade things with each other – a function which was nowhere to be found.

”Online marketplaces such as Blocket and Tradera were gaining speed, but I didn’t think they were feasible for parents. I did not have the time to sell my children’s clothes online, and I noticed that the second-hand stores had very limited children’s sections. Where were all the children’s outfits, the strollers and the baby stuff? I reckoned it was all tucked away in people’s storage rooms”, says Stina Qubti. She found inspiration for her new concept in a small New York store:

”It was tiny, just 20 square meters or so – but everything was colorful and lovely inside, and there were more clothes for kids than in any second-hand store in Stockholm at the time. I knew that this was what I wanted to do – only bigger, not just one little store. Because I knew the demand would be huge.”

The selection has increased over time. Today, Busfrö offers children’s and ladies’ fashion, baby accessories, toys and home decor in five stores. And the evolution progresses.

”Every store is still growing, and the chain is growing too: we are aiming to open 60 stores within 12 years time, and I think that is doable. We have just signed the agreement to open two new stores this spring, one on each coast. And we are turning our eyes towards the big cities and the university locations”, Stina Qubti says.

Local residents shape the selection

The foundation of a circular economy is that everything in use today will be handed over to someone else tomorrow – either as raw material or to be reused. This means that everyone have to help with closing the loop, and every consumer implicitly becomes a supplier as well. Busfrö’s concept acknowledges this; the local residents stock the stores with goods that they no longer need for themselves, while the chain handles everything else – the showroom, the staff and the advertising.

”You can hand in a limited amount every month, one bag per product category. We select the best and display those items that we believe we can sell in 60 days in the store. The depositors get their own account in the store, and we credit that with 40 percent of each sale”, Stina Qubti says.

The account balance can be turned into either cash or products, and the items that remain unsold or are sorted out are donated to partners for recycling. The high level of participation from the community fosters commitment and gives the company a special relation to its customers:

“Online shopping robs us of the meeting place and the human contact. But our entire concept is based on that contact; a very special relationship develops when everyone that enters the store are both the customer and the supplier at the same time. If Busfrö thrives, they benefit – so they are willing ambassadors and take part in our concept development”, Stina Qubti explains.

”Neither second-hand nor sale on commission are innovations. But Busfrö’s achievement is to modernize it all and package it into something that works and can be scaled”, she says. And the challenge is directed towards fashion brands, not towards the traditional vintage second-hand stores.

“We are definitely competing directly with the ordinary brands. We already have the environmentally aware consumers, but we are competing for the others, those that are not used to buying vintage. The customer that walks down Main Street looking to buy a new dress for this weekend’s party. That is why we want our stores in a downtown location.”

Stina Qubti underlines that Busfrö is not niche or vintage – it wants to appeal to all.

“We want to incite those that usually shop at H&M, Lindex or Kappahl to look through our store first. We want to show how much value you get for your money here, how good it feels, and that you can find unique, trendy and fun items.”

A quality pass filter

Busfrö has received numerous awards for their sustainable and innovative business model. In 2014, Stina Qubti was proclaimed “Most entrepreneurial person in Kalmar County” by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise:
“It was an important personal milestone. It was the locals that voted, and the award opened doors for me and really helped me develop the concept further”, she says. Photo: Busfrö Nytt & Bytt.

Some may hesitate to buy second-hand, fearing that the quality might be inferior. But Stina Qubti points out that the process rather is a stamp of approval: once a garment reaches the shelf at Busfrö, it has passed both the staff’s and the depositor’s quality control, and lived successfully through its first use cycle.

“We have every brand imaginable, and many of them are top quality. Many original garments are basically sloppily made from cheap, floppy fabrics – and sure, we get those as well – but those rarely make it through use. If we are even looking at a piece of clothing it is an indication that it was good quality to begin with, and that means that it likely will remain in pretty good shape too.”

In spite of the high standards, finding an adequate supply of goods has never been an issue. On the contrary: the enormous inflow is the chain’s biggest challenge.

“In Västervik, which is a tiny city, we are receiving eight tonnes of clothes every month. And remember that it is pre-sorted by the depositors – they put the best they have in their monthly bag. We have been forced to limit ourselves to garments younger than five years to handle the volume. The store here is 525 square meters, but we could easily fill 400 more”, Stina Qubti says.

At the moment, the franchise model is being fine-tuned. While the machinery should be identical and the store concept recognizable, every store has its own range of products.

”I think it gives us an important advantage. If you visit one H&M store, there is no point in visiting another; they all look the same. But a different Busfrö store is really exciting – you know the atmosphere and the workings, but you have no idea what you might find. Many customers go on tour to visit all the stores, it is just so much fun”, Stina Qubti says with a laugh.

Uneven competition: a limit to growth

The recycled garment was selected as the Christmas Gift of the Year in Sweden. Perhaps that is an indication that second-hand shopping is becoming mainstream. But in spite of the positive response, there is a long way to go before second-hand can challenge the regular brands in every city, and before the industry can catch up with the consumers’ willingness to circulate. One important reason, according to Stina Qubti, is that the non-profit stores are exempt from taxes, which gives them an unfair competitive advantage over the commercial ones.

“We live in different realities. If you consider what we do, it is really an improper way of taxing: our business model is to circulate the same items over and over and over again. And we pay taxes on them over and over and over again. It is obstructing the growth of the sector”.

Stina Qubti reveals that she is setting up a network to organize commercial second-hand stores and deal with this issue. She also wants to see a national deposit system to handle the stream of products from consumers, and she thinks the second-hand part of the fashion industry should be heard more.

“Because second-hand is important, and it is growing – and it really is the only way to go. We need more stores like this that can help take care of the things that others have pushed on the market”, she concludes.

The article was published in January 2019.