"It smells so good in here," said Janine Elghor as she perused the clothing and shoe racks at Clothes Mentor in Minnetonka. New to consignment shopping, Elghor said the economy made her take the plunge.

Comments about a store's aroma might seem odd or superfluous in most retail shops, but not for a consignment or resale shop. The stigma of too much musty clothing jammed into a small space has kept customers at bay for years. But whenever the economy goes south, consignment and resale shops attract new and lapsed customers.

Come on in, the water's fine, said Chad Olson, chief operating officer at Clothes Mentor in Maple Grove and Minnetonka. Customers are finding not only sweet-smelling stores but also wide aisles, comfortable, sizable dressing rooms and well-organized merchandise, he said. Even the most discerning fashion plate can find shops chic enough to satisfy an Oval Room stalker.

Business is up 5 to 10 percent at several local consignment shops compared with last year, at a time when full-price clothing retailers are struggling.

When the Clothes Mentor opened on April 5 in Minnetonka, 50 women waited in line for the doors to open. Slightly different from consignment stores that pay about 50 percent of the selling price if the item sells, Clothes Mentor gives cash on the spot, like Once Upon a Child or Plato's Closet.

Albertville resident Elghor said that she'll continue her foray into consignment shopping. The Macy's, Penney's and Talbot's shopper said that she couldn't resist paying only $7 for a blouse and $12 for a sweater from last season. "The prices are so reasonable. I'll definitely be back," she said.

How stores fight the stigma

Although their numbers always rise in tough times, consignment shoppers only make up between 6 and 12 percent of adult Americans, depending on the market, said Britt Beemer, retail analyst at America's Research Group.

Consignment shops face a lot of obstacles, Beemer said, from customer concerns about sizes and alterations to the psychological barrier of wearing someone else's clothing.

The most successful consignment stores overcome those barriers by creating stores whose decor could pass for that of full-priced retail stores. A shopper could search high and low on the windows at Fashion Avenue in Edina and Wayzata for the word "consignment," but it's not there.

"We deliberately left it off," said co-owner Gretchen Weisman. "I'm sure we've missed out on customers who don't come in because they think we're too high-end." The highest compliment is when customers say that they didn't know FA is a consignment store, said Weisman.

Many high-end consignment stores such as Fashion Avenue and GH2 in Minneapolis further blur the lines between full retail and resale by mixing in new merchandise with the pre-owned. GH2, which is also an outlet for Grethen House boutique in Edina, sends its unsold clearance to GH2. Fashion Avenue sells samples from Habitat, Moe, Wacoal and Diane Von Furstenberg.

Recycled, not used

Weisman has watched sales increase nearly 10 percent over last year at her stores, but she thinks it's more than just the economy. Ten years ago, her customers said that they would never admit to buying an item at a consignment shop. "Now they see their consignment purchases as a badge of green pride," she said. "It's not buying used clothes anymore -- it's recycling."

Weisman even reuses the plastic bags that consignors bring their clothes in as shopping bags for customers. Within reason, that is. If a customer is buying a Prada handbag, Weisman eschews the Abercrombie shopping bag for one from Neiman Marcus.

For women who love high fashion as much as does Deanna Phillips of Minneapolis, it's a life cycle. If she saves 80 percent by buying consignment at GH2, she might treat herself to a full-priced item at Grethen House. Phillips, who lived in Paris in the 1990s, said French women buy couture or something elaborate that they won't wear more than a few times, so they consign it and buy another consigned item at a fraction of the original.

Only at a consignment store (or eBay) would a shopper find a Jimmy Choo handbag for $800, regularly $2,400, seen at Rags from Riches in Wayzata last week. Or maybe Donna Karan's knockout black-label, burned-out velvet topaz dress for $1,600, regularly $5,000, also at Rags.

The secret to banishing musty odors in a store filled with used clothing? Olson said that his Clothes Mentor stores have air purifiers in each corner. If an item that was in storage smells less than fresh, some stores might ask the consignor to have it cleaned or an employee may spritz it with a little Febreze.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. His articles are online at www.startribune.com/dollars.