WILLMAR -- When Laura Becker opened the doors at Camille's Closet on a warm, sunny morning last week, three customers were already waiting outside.
When they left 15 minutes later, one of them was wearing the cotton tropical-print shirt she'd bought at a bargain-basement price, and the shirt's original owner had earned a percentage of the sale.
Everything old is new again at Camille's Closet, one of the region's few consignment stores specializing in women's clothing.
Becker, the owner, says she loves what she does.
"You are a retail store but you also are providing a service," she said.
You know all those clothes women buy and then leave hanging in the closet? Becker gives them a second life by accepting them on consignment, selling them at below-retail prices and sharing the proceeds with the consigner.
The market is substantial, for both consigners and shoppers.
Becker's database contains more than 5,200 consignment numbers. "I have had days where I take in almost 250 items a day," she said. "I have never had a shortage of incoming items."
The recession appears to have increased the consignment business even more.
There's money to be made from unloading gently used skirts, sweaters, jeans, handbags and jewelry, Becker said. "Now with the economy, I am seeing a lot more people looking at generating revenue. It definitely is a factor."
People are becoming more conscious as well of consumerism, she said. "There is a very big movement to go green... I think our society is taking that step back to realize a lot of our clothes are perfectly good and can still be worn."
Shoppers looking for deals also are turning to recycled and secondhand purchases to save money.
"Sales are good. I have a huge customer base," Becker said. When she sent out her annual customer appreciation postcards this past spring, she mailed more than 1,500 of them.
Some garments on the clearance rack at Camille's Closet sell for as little as $3. You might find a designer label, a leather jacket or even a fur coat.
"I have quite a few shoppers that never get past my clearance racks. They can get things very reasonably priced to add to or to start a wardrobe," Becker said.
Where do consignment items come from? Maybe it's an impulse buy that has never been worn, or perhaps someone lost or gained weight and needs to get rid of clothing that no longer fits, Becker said.
"I have lots of items that are brand-new with the tags still on. It never ceases to amaze me," she said. "I get very, very nice winter coats."
When an item sells, Camille's Closet splits the proceeds, with the original owner getting 40 percent of the selling price. To keep the merchandise moving, Becker lowers the selling price every month until the four-month consignment period expires. If the item didn't sell, the consigner can either pick it up and bring it home or donate it to the store.
Don't bring in your cast-offs or vintage clothing, though. Camille's Closet focuses on the almost-new and the still-fashionable, Becker said.
"It has to be current. It has to be what you see in the marketplace today," she said. "I am very selective. I go through things. I flip up the collar. If there's a ring around the collar, I don't take it. It has to be in ready-to-sell condition."
Occasionally, however, she'll accept a vintage item that's especially unique and in good condition -- and therein lies one of the appeals of shopping at a consignment store, she said.
"You never know what you're going to find. With the brand names you get a huge variety," she said. "Customers are across the board, from the teenagers all the way up to mature women in their 80s."
To help foster shopper loyalty, she offers extras such as a one-day hold for purchases and a shopping card that allows customers to accumulate points toward a discount.
"It's a benefit to them," she said.
Retail has been part of Becker's life since childhood. Her family owned a furniture store, and before moving to Willmar, she and her husband, Dave, ran a secondhand store in Little Falls. When she bought Camille's Closet three years ago, she became the latest owner of a business that has been in downtown Willmar for more than 20 years.
"It is fun and I love what I do," she said. "The people that I deal with are absolutely delightful."
Not long ago she helped a customer find a nice dress to wear to a wedding -- for $11.
"She was thrilled and it totally fit her needs," she said.