It's the dream of any garage saler or eBay troller: One-stop shopping for thousands of children's used clothing and toys.

Suburban "mega-sales" are growing rapidly, bringing together buyers and sellers of kids clothes, toys and accessories. Tens of thousands of items, sized and arranged neatly in sections, are sold at prices far below department stores and a bit above garage sale pricing. Most items are used but pristine condition is a must.

"It's cheap, it's green, and it beats going to 20 garage sales," said Kris Bishop, who co-owns the Just Between Friends sale in Maple Grove, one of six sales being held in the Twin Cities this weekend.

Consignment sales best garage sales and eBay on a couple of fronts: Sellers don't need to spend hours photographing and posting each item and no one has to clean out their garage and worry about hagglers -- or the weather.

They're usually held in a gym, ice rink or recreation center, offering under-one-roof shopping. Sellers tag items using an online template and can choose if the item should be marked half-price on the last day of the sale and if an unsold item should be donated to charity.

These seasonal sales, usually held in the spring and fall, are also a bonus for parents who want to recoup some cash when toddlers outgrow their clothes or grow tired of an expensive toy.

"I don't want to get 50 cents for an item at a garage sale if I paid $8 or $10," said Rose Hubbard of Inver Grove Heights, who consigned 110 items at a recent sale in Eagan. "At consignment sales I can get $3 or $5 for it."

The sales, which started in the Twin Cities about five years ago, usually are initiated by young mothers who have created an independent business or joined a franchise. The owners organize the sale and generally take 20 to 35 percent of the revenue, minus expenses and any franchise fees. Now, more than a dozen independent or franchised kids sales take place twice a year in the metro area.

While traditional retailers such as Babies 'R' Us have struggled in the recession, consignment shops and upstart franchises that conduct these occasional sales have seen consistent growth.

The Just Between Friends franchise in Eagan saw a 61 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2010, said Bishop.

Sales at her spring sale held there last month increased an additional 23 percent.

Used items for kids continue to sell well in this economy, said Steve Murphy, president of franchising for Winmark Corp. in Golden Valley, which includes consignment stores Once Upon a Child and Plato's Closet. He doesn't think the mega-sales have had an impact on his Once Upon a Child stores. "It actually helps our business because it encourages people to buy used and sell used," he said.

Murphy doesn't expect the kids' consignment business to fade when the economy improves. "We find new customers in a recession and we keep them," he said. In 2001 the average annual revenue at a Once Upon a Child store was $400,000, he said. By 2010 it had jumped to $723,000.

Word of mouth

Owners of the mega-sales often don't have a lot of money to advertise, so word of mouth or an e-mail gets most people in the door.

"Parents always wish they had heard about us when their kids were newborns," said Henriette Roe, owner of the From Yours to Mine sale in Lakeville.

While many young parents haven't heard of seasonal sales, those who have turn into regular customers -- at least until their kids outgrow the children's department. "Consumers are more likely to buy used for kids than for themselves, especially when the economy improves," said David Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas.

Many mega-sale customers are also Once Upon a Child shoppers. Paula Talbott of Bloomington said that she finds lower prices at the mega-sales, especially at the end, when most items go half-price. Bigger items such as strollers and bouncy seats sell quickly on the first day, but an abundance of clothes await bargain hunters during the last hours.

Bigger bucks for sellers

Making $3 on a kid's top at a mega-sale instead of 50 cents at a garage sale might not seem like much, but the average consignor brings 150 to 200 items, said Bishop, who also co-owns Just Between Friends franchises in Eagan and Elk River. At an Eagan sale last month, consignor Hubbard sold about 90 of her 110 items.

Some consignors say they make more money (65 percent to 80 percent of the sale price) at occasional sales than at consignment shops.

At occasional sales, sellers can set their own price, although first-timers often price too high, say organizers. Sellers usually get a check for their items within two weeks after the sale.

Linda Erickson of Inver Grove Heights gave up selling kids items on eBay after trying the consignment sales. "The money is as good or better than selling on eBay and it takes a lot less time."

Still, first-time consignors often find the preparation daunting. They have to price each item and type a brief description into an online template, then print a price tag on heavy paper so it doesn't tear, and attach it with a safety pin or tagging gun before heading to the sale. Roe said it takes about an hour to process 50 items.

On the upside, no one has to spend hours waiting for customers (consignors do not need to be present at the sale) or put up with bounced checks. "It's more convenient for more money," Roe said.

For some owners, their business is more of a service to the community than a business. New parents on a budget can't beat the savings of time and money.

And the buying-used stigma? "Little kids don't care where you buy it," said Roe.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or If you spot a deal, share it at