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Illustration by Ari Liloan for The Verge

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The teen tycoons of Depop

Young people can make real money selling vintage clothes online — if they can stay on the right side of the algorithm

Seventeen-year-old Chelsea Aves of Fremont, California, has had a Depop account since her sophomore year of high school. But when COVID shut down the world, she got serious about selling.

“We were all quarantined, and I had nothing to do, so I was on my Marie Kondo decluttering binge,” Aves says. “My whole closet had to go. And that’s where I first started getting my inventory.”

When she’d made her way through her own unwanted clothes, photographing and uploading the good stuff to the secondhand / vintage e-commerce app, she fixed her sights on other full closets in the house.

“I started ‘decluttering’ my parents’ closet,” she says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, these are good!’ They had like a lot of ’90s brands, like Ed Hardy — a lot of things that were going in style again. They weren’t too happy when they found out.”

With her parents’ eventual forgiveness, Aves took her sourcing up a notch, trawling for finds at flea markets and garage sales. About a year and a half into her Depop experiment, she has more than 850 items listed, and she’s sold more than twice that. By her estimate, she brings in between $500 and $1,500 a week — enough to pay for her classes and books at the community college where she’s studying nursing.

The money is great, but she says it’s the freedom that she finds so appealing. “I remember when I went and bought my first big purchase without [my parents] knowing. They were like, ‘Where did you get this iPad? From your clothes?’” she says. “Any sort of independence that you have from your parents is, like, everything.” Along the way, Aves has developed a new arsenal of professional skills: inventory management, customer relations, and the feat of international shipping, just to name a few.

Mary Findley, a Depop senior community-development manager, says Aves’ story is an increasingly common one: For four years, there has been press around young sellers paying their college tuition with Depop earnings, but 2020 marked the dawn of a new age for the ecommerce-meets-social app: millionaire seller success stories, sales surges, and last month a $1.6 billion acquisition by Etsy.

As of spring 2020, Findley says, these upward trends are in overdrive. At the start of the lockdowns, the team at Depop — founded in Italy in 2011, now headquartered in London — began to see activity spike among its 26 million buyers and sellers, 90 percent of whom are 25 or younger, according to company data. “Many of our highest-earning sellers started their shops during the pandemic,” Findley says, “and they’ve built successful businesses.”

Rio Andras Ramirez, a 24-year-old artist in Janesville, Wisconsin, isn’t a high earner yet, but they’re making moves. Ramirez also started selling in the thick of COVID, and this spring, they left their job as an Amazon warehouse associate and signed up for a much more flexible arrangement with Instacart, to make more space for Depop.

Now, Ramirez is putting in 20-plus hours per week, sourcing size- and gender-inclusive goods from their own wardrobe and from their grandma Rosa (e.g., vintage Betty Boop attire), arranging their listings in a dreamy color spectrum. Ramirez’s goal is to get to a point where Depop can sustain them full-time and be a venue to sell their own designs, too.

Grinding on Depop

Jordan Cox, 22, balances her burgeoning Depop shop with lab work as a graduate student of inorganic chemistry at Columbia. She’s curating a collection that speaks to Gen Z microtrends, like big, boxy “grandpa sweaters,” “dark academia,” and, generally, “‘Cool girl’ Pinterest vibes,” which she’s selling at a pace of about 40 items a month. Her $200 to $400 a month in profit isn’t life-changing, she says, and the listing part is “kind of tedious,” but she won’t be folding up shop anytime soon.

“I do like that it’s very ‘social media’ feeling,” she says. “I get notifications on my phone, and there definitely is an amount of adrenaline or dopamine or whatever when you get a sale, versus someone just liking your posts on Instagram, so I think that also keeps me hooked.”

But since joining in May 2020, she’s had Depop’s physical and logistical challenges to navigate, and these can be especially tricky for young people in small living spaces who are often on the move. For starters, there’s the storage dilemma: “How do you be a serious Depop seller while attending college and living in a dorm?” one seller posted to /r/Depop. “Right now, my college is closed because of COVID, so I’m doing this from home … Are there people who do this out of their dorm? Is it even possible?” Commenters weighed in: “Live off-campus.”

Then there’s managing fulfillment as a one-person show. Over Black Friday, Cox made something like $1,000 in sales — but the annual Depop frenzy also coincides with Thanksgiving, when she was out of town for a week and a half. To avoid delayed shipping, she hauled dozens of bins of hundreds of items around in her car for the duration of her break.

Cody Williams, 25, of Phoenix, Arizona, said he and his fiancé, Kylee, were “looking for ways to make additional passive income” this year, and Depop seemed like the ticket. In the past month, they’ve launched “his and hers” channels, featuring inventory sourced mostly from their own closets. Williams’ photos often feature him, cropped at the waist, looking down at the garment he’s wearing in nonchalant admiration. As of early July, the couple had sold 39 items for around $500.

Based on the numbers (as tracked and analyzed in the app’s dashboard), earning five or six grand by year end seems “super realistic, and shooting low to a certain extent,” Williams says, so he feels like they’re on the right track. There’s just one problem: “At this point the big deficit is: How can we identify ways to market our products without having to be, like, locked into the phone all day? [Depop is like] we’re gonna give you some sort of incentive, like you can get money from this — but you need to stare at your phone for eight hours a day.”

The Algorithm Blues

The pandemic hasn’t meant a windfall for everyone on the platform. About three years ago, 23-year-old photographer Malena Lloyd moved from Cleveland to Norwalk, Ohio, where a dead-end job search led her to become her own boss on Depop. Dealing secondhand and vintage, she says she’s making more than she would as a barista or shop clerk, and feeling creatively fulfilled in the meantime, enlisting friends to model her items, and developing a standout aesthetic for her brand, with colorful backdrops of magenta, tangerine, and retro crocheted rainbow.

But when the pandemic hit, Lloyd’s sales tanked, and they haven’t entirely bounced back. Lloyd says other sellers have noticed it, too. “It’s been pretty slow. Like, in all of my years of selling, this past year and even a little bit of this year, it’s been bad,” she says. “It’s especially hard because it’s not like you work two weeks and then you’re going to get a paycheck. A few years ago it was so much better — that’s when it was amazing for me.”

Lloyd has begun to put her eggs in other baskets: a side gig at a thrift store she landed because of her Depop work, seamstress and design work she’s just getting into, and prepping for an upcoming move to NYC to pursue fashion.

Whether she was up against algorithm changes, or some more human factor, she is learning one of the platform’s hardest lessons: success on Depop can be fickle. The most successful sellers are those with the power to take their audiences with them, often building up an audience before leaving for their own online stores.

But if the churn is hurting Depop, it’s hard to see it in the numbers. The company saw a 30 percent uptick in items sold early last year, and ultimately doubled its revenue (mostly from sales commissions) to $70 million in 2020. It also appears to have gained millions of users, reporting some 5 million more than they did in June of 2020. If buyers have more options — for example, new stock like Aves’ parents’ freshly liquidated wardrobe of in-demand Y2K fashion — Lloyd and other veteran sellers just have to hustle that much harder to stay afloat.

For her part, Lloyd plans to roll with it, repeating a classic freelancer’s mantra: “Just keep doing it, keep listing, keep selling, try your best, and hopefully it will shake out.”

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