This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter.
As most players in the apparel industry shift away from brick-and-mortar retail, Shilla Kim-Parker is doubling down on the importance of small stores for communities and mom-and-pop shop-owners. Coming from a family of Black, small business owners, Kim-Parker launched Thrilling in 2018 to support Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs such as herself — but her ambitions and momentum are bigger than small-town dreams.
Taking a bite of the $36 billion resale industry, Thrilling partners with independent vintage and secondhand shops in the U.S. to bring its inventory online and make it available for purchase from anywhere in a virtual marketplace. In exchange for providing the tools, technology and hands-on support to small businesses, Thrilling takes a commission from every transaction on its site (which it dropped during the pandemic). Today, Thrilling’s online marketplace hosts over 400 stores in more than 100 cities, 95 percent of which are run by women and/or BIPOC business-owners.
Thrilling closed a $8.5 million Series A funding round in April, which was led by Prelude Ventures and joined by Congruent Ventures and Closed Loop Partners, among others, and will fund new hires and support the platform’s technology development.
I recently spoke with Kim-Parker about Thrilling and the role of small businesses in the future of fashion.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lauren Phipps: How would you describe Thrilling’s position within the broader apparel resale market?
Shilla Kim-Parker: My passion, motivation and energy behind Thrilling is about serving the small mom-and-pop shops and sellers. We're a very mission-oriented company. There isn't a lot of light shone on their segment of the retail industry, but it’s massive: easily bigger than Starbucks and McDonald's combined.
My goal is for [independent vintage and secondhand shops] to continue to be vibrant parts of local economies — but they need additional streams of revenue to survive. They really do want to be online to reach more people so that they can continue to make rent every month.
While they feel like there are so many ways to get online, a lot of the solutions are just not geared for their specific needs. They have thousands of handpicked and curated items in their stores, and it's just a very different proposition to get those things online versus you and I selling a few items in their closet. First and foremost, Thrilling is focused on that very specific segment and creating an operational and tech company that's oriented towards being their true partner.
Phipps: Where do you see the role of brick and mortar shops in the future of fashion and the industry trend towards e-commerce?
Kim-Parker: I don't think that [e-commerce] will ever compete with the in-person experience. I think that there's a specific type of magic to walking into a vintage store and having an experience — the thrill of the hunt.
They're important for local economies as well. Some of our shop owners are able to hire other folks, pay their taxes, they often host community events and support other local artists in their communities. We're working towards being able to support their vulnerabilities.
And so my dream would be for them to be able to continue to flourish, and have a place in the future and not for it to be a fully digital reality as the only way to shop for clothes.
Obviously, the pandemic was enormously stressful and a lot of our store owners lost their stores. I think it's always going to be a challenge. But that's our dream: a future where the pie is bigger. It's not necessarily that one is cannibalizing the other.
Phipps: I was surprised to read that you have a partnership with Banana Republic. What’s Thrilling’s value proposition for brands?
Kim-Parker: Banana Republic actually started as a mom-and-pop vintage store in Mill Valley, California, in 1978, so they approached us wanting to tap back into these roots.
In the first iteration of our partnership, we sourced a collection from our partner stores that was not necessarily vintage Banana Republic, but was vintage that aligned with their aesthetic, which we sold on both of our sites. Now we have an ongoing relationship with them where we're sourcing vintage Banana Republic items for them from the '70s and '80s. We source that from our stores and sell it to them, and they're reselling it in their stores and online. It's been very successful; every time they do a drop like that they've had 100 percent sell-through within a few days.
So it's a white label service, and we love it because it helps get revenue to our small store partners. Brands are also very effective at talking to their specific customers and getting them to be excited about vintage, so that's a huge win, too.
Phipps: How are you addressing the big challenge of data management and how manual the process of resale can be?
Kim-Parker: We're spending a lot of our time investing in innovation that will reduce the friction of the pure data entry and the work around uploading an item, which is the biggest barrier towards getting their inventory online.
We are incorporating machine vision so that when you take a picture of your item, a lot of the data entries are already pre-populated for you. We’re also incorporating other tools into our app for sellers, like pricing recommendations and digital measurement systems. My dream is that the store owner only needs to press the shutter button on their camera and that everything is pre-populated and they can go on to the next item. That's the end goal that we're working towards.
Phipps: Where do you hope to see Thrilling in five years?
Kim-Parker: I hope we’re working with and supporting shops all over the globe. And that every vintage and high-quality secondhand shop is finding valuable support through us. I hope that people are starting to think about us, or vintage shopping, before heading to the mall or to their firsthand shopping site. I hope that we become a more accessible option, more of a habit for more folks to find their wardrobe needs — not just folks who are diehard vintage shoppers.
That's really the goal: supporting more shops around the world and making vintage more of a habit for folks.