When Jay Hall bought Mainstreet Furniture Consignment in Hopkins three years ago, he considered it a recession-resistant business. "I thought if the economy weakened, people would be more likely to buy used than new," he said. "If the dog destroyed the sofa, I figured they'd buy a temporary replacement."

What he underestimated is the "live with it" factor in a recession. Apparently, a lot of people decided to slap some duct tape on the damaged "dog toy" and wait for better times. To survive, Mainstreet and other furniture consignment stores have lowered prices. "Two years ago I priced a fine used sofa at 50 percent of the retail sale price," said Hall. "Now it's 30 percent of retail."

Used-furniture sellers have discovered that their prices have to be lower than new, even if the quality is far superior. If a family has a budget of $600 for a new sofa, they can easily find that at Ikea or Dock 86, the new furniture outlet in Little Canada owned by Hom.

"I may have Henredon and Drexel sofas, but I'm competing with Target and Pier 1," said Mary O'Neal, who owns a shop in Excelsior. Many buyers are looking only at price. "They don't make a distinction between a $500 secondhand sofa from Century that was originally $3,000 and a new $500 sofa at Ikea," said O'Neal.

Having figured out the pricing, the secondhand furniture business is looking up. Many secondhand furniture retailers are eking out small single-digit sales increases in an industry in decline. Sales at new-furniture retailers were down 8 percent last year, according to Furniture Today, an industry publication.

Despite the recession, three local renegades opened furniture consignment stores in the past year: Kay Frandsen's Wabi Sabi Shop in Plymouth, Kendra Anderson's Movables in northeast Minneapolis and Ann Byers' second location of Bella Galleria in southwest Minneapolis. TurnStyle, the most ubiquitous consignment clothing store in the Twin Cities area, has added furniture departments at several stores and home-accent stores in Coon Rapids, Eden Prairie and Roseville. More are planned, said Greg Kennedy, vice president of store operations.

The new and surviving stores have made other changes to stay alive. Furniture must reflect current styles and be in impeccable condition -- no stains or obvious signs of wear. If there is a stain, the price should reflect it. Hall recently sold a $4,000 Pearson sofa with a faint but noticeable stain on the cushion for $350 to a person who appreciates the brand. Other modifications include accepting more home office furniture, websites with photos of featured and new merchandise and a "wish list" for shoppers who want to be called when a specific item comes in.

Generally, expect to pay $100 to $700 for most love seats and sofas, $50 to $400 for occasional chairs and $200 to $1,200 for dining room sets. Most shops also offer a nice selection of framed art and area rugs at very reasonable prices.

If you're considering consigning, take a picture of the item first to show or e-mail to the store. If it's not in pristine condition, you're better off trying Craigslist, a garage sale or a charity.

For buyers looking for quality, bargains await. Nearly all of the upholstered chairs and sofas I saw were in mint condition, despite a few ugly fabrics. Some were new with tags still attached. Even the white love seat from Ikea that I saw in Movables was spotless (and priced 50 percent less than new). But that's the beauty of consignment furniture: Shoppers can find an Ikea disposable next to a $6,000 Marge Carson sectional that cost $24,000 new.

To save even more, buyers should ask how long the item has been on the sales floor. As in most consignment shops, discounts are offered after 30 days. Prices are very reasonable, even for high-buck furniture lines. That's a benefit to buyers but can be a shock to consignors. Consignors usually get 45 to 55 percent of the selling price, which amounts to about 25 percent of the original purchase price, often less.

Some buyers might prefer to get more by placing their furniture in a classified ad or on Craigslist. A buyer will typically pick up the item at your home, but you have to be available for questions and willing to let strangers into your house. Consignors have to haul the items to the shop themselves or pay to have them picked up.

Julie Johnson of Bloomington consigned a Century armoire at the Wabi Sabi Shop. She paid $5,000 for it 14 years ago and received $1,000, minus the delivery fee she paid movers to get it to Wabi Sabi.

"I was OK with the price I received," Johnson said. "I like knowing that another family is enjoying those pieces."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/blogs/dealspotter.