PETALING JAYA: Call them thrifty or green, but Malaysians just can't get enough of pre-loved apparel. No wonder then that the country has become one of the world’s biggest markets for used clothes.
The Observatory of Economic Complexity, which tracks global trade, reported that Malaysia was the eighth largest importer of used clothing in the world, and the biggest in South-East Asia in 2020.
In recent years, the number of stores of selling imported pre-loved items has mushroomed.
Price conscious Malaysians are driving the popularity of pre-loved clothing, while some prefer to buy used to promote recycling and reduce wastage.
A check by The Star at various locations in the Klang Valley found that business is booming, with many shops expanding to offer greater accessibility to customers as well as a bigger variety.
Some shops offer not just a wide selection of vintage and pre-loved branded apparel, but also shoes, silverware, musical instruments, baby essentials and everything in between.
According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM), Malaysia’s imports of “worn clothing” grew by 47% in the two years since 2020 - the year the pandemic hit – to 2022.
Japan is currently the biggest exporter of used clothes to Malaysia, accounting for 43.3% or RM195mil of Malaysia’s imports of used apparel last year.
This is reflected in part by the number of Japanese second-hand concept stores that set up business here over the years such as Jalan Jalan Japan, 2nd street and Bondoru, all of which import mostly from Japan.
South Korea is second at 26.7% (RM120mil), followed by Australia RM29.7mil (6.6%), China RM22mil (4.9%), Pakistan RM12.7mil (2.8%), Singapore RM9.1mil (2%) and India RM7mil (1.6%).
Imports of pre-loved clothes in the country peaked in 2017 at RM765 mil before it dipped by 60% to RM150mil in 2020, likely due to the pandemic.
Among the biggest importers of used clothing in the country is Jalan Jalan Japan (JJJ), a Japan thrift store in Malaysia owned by BOK Marketing Sdn Bhd.
The company is a subsidiary of Bookoff Corporation Limited, one of the largest second-hand chains in Japan with more than 800 stores, which has been around for 33 years.
It has launched 10 stores in Malaysia since within seven years of entering the country in 2016.
Its products are all imported from Japan and the company plans to expand to other parts of the country, especially to the east coast and Borneo.
Employing 400 local workers, BOK's stores are mainly located in shopping malls and have about 2,000,000 items which are restocked monthly.
BOK Marketing Sdn Bhd’s CEO Daichi Shuzui said consumer views on spending have changed ever since the movement control orders.
“Gen Z has become a big part of the group with buying power of second-hand goods, they do not want to waste money and are smart shoppers.
“Now, we want to expand our services so that JJJ can appeal to all generations,” he said.
Gen Z refers to people in their late teens and early 20s who were born in the late 1990s or early this century.
They are perceived as being familiar with the use of digital technology, the internet, and social media from a very young age.
Daichi said that unlike most bundle shops in the country, JJJ sells more than just apparel.
“In Malaysia, there are many bundle shops and many have grown to be big like us.
“What makes us different is that we don’t just sell fashion items, we sell everything, such as tableware, toys, sports goods and outdoor and camping goods.
A visit to JJJ’s store at the M3 shopping mall in Gombak on a Thursday afternoon saw families buying items such as plush toys, shoes and baby safety fences for their children.
A group of secondary school students were seen checking out black shoes, presumably for school, while several women browsed for clothes and bags.
The products that JJJ sells in Malaysia, said Daichi, are bought directly from people in Japan.
“The Japanese have small houses and with four seasons, they cannot keep many items, so they can sell their items to us in Japan,” Daichi said.
He said the company buys more than what it can resell in Japan, hence the decision to export and find new markets.
Daichi said JJJ was aiming to be a part of the circular economy, where customers do not need to throw away anything that they buy.
The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.
“After using their phone or their bags in Japan, we encourage them to sell (these items) and buy a new one or instead of a new item, they can buy a pre-loved item,” he said.
He said the concept of ethical consumption was also in line with the company’s goals.
“We can talk about sales, but more importantly, how many pieces of pre-loved apparels have we sold? How many trees and how many tons of plastics have we saved from landing up in the landfills?” he said.
Daichi said the company plans to expand to other parts of the country, with two to three stores launched every year.
“Our stores outside of Klang Valley are doing very well. In the past 90 days, our newly-opened store in Melaka have become number one (in terms of sales),” he said, adding that its other stores in Penang and Melaka are also performing well.
Daichi said JJJ would open in smaller shopping malls to maintain selling its items at low prices.
The buzz around pre-loved clothes in Malaysia is not just about buying.
2nd Street Trading Malaysia, a Japanese company that also sells Japan products, largely apparels, shoes and bags, also buys second-hand items from its customers.
The service is offered to Malaysians at four out of its 11 outlets in the Klang Valley.
“We sort through clothes that people bring, choosing only those in good condition.
“These items will be resold to our customers,” said a sales assistant who only wanted to be known as Syamil.
Some of its items, especially women’s clothes from Japan, are sorted using hangers with size tags on them to improve the shopping experience for customers.
2nd Street’s website says the company only accepts attire such as clothes, shoes, bags, and headwear, including branded and non-branded items.
It does not accept accessories and clothes such as babywear, kimonos, pyjamas, swimwear, work attire, wedding dresses and others.
“We had a long line of customers during Chinese New Year who wanted to sell off their clothes and used items,” he said.
2nd street also sells branded items, some of which are placed in locked display cases.
Selling a wide variety of pre-loved apparels, JBR Bundle is also one of the larger bundle stores in the country, with 11 stores in the Klang Valley with products from Japan, United States, United Kingdom, South Korea and Australia.
Most of its stores are in warehouse-concept stores with rows and rows of clothes from daily wear to winter clothing, sorted by sections such as for women, men and children.
However, it also has other sections selling shoes, bags, toys, house decorations, furniture, bicycles, golf set, kitchenware, baby essentials, books, curtains and others.
At its store in Sri Damansara, it has a separate section for pre-loved branded goods, with prices ranging from RM30 to several hundred ringgit, depending on the brand and condition of the item.