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Bundle Shops in Malaysia: Staying Chic, But At What Cost? 

“Where did you get that?”

“Oh, it’s from a bundle shop.”

Beauty often lurks in the unlikeliest of places, and for Zaidatul Aizan Mohd Hafiz, 22, a self-proclaimed thrifting connoisseur, her student wardrobe was a hidden treasure trove. Embracing thrifting wasn’t just a pragmatic choice for her, but it was also a thrilling scavenger hunt where Zaidatul was able to unearth unique pieces.

There is no better feeling than finding a fantastic secondhand gem for a fraction of its original price. You might be surprised how secondhand items are frequently of higher quality than new ones despite their lower cost. – Zaidatul Aizan Mohd Hafiz[1]

Nasrul Afzal Jamil, 23, proudly declared that the majority of his wardrobe is a collection of thrifted gems. For him, purchasing and wearing secondhand clothing is a means of expressing his individuality and style.

Sometimes used clothes are more to my taste because most of the clothes come from various countries and when I mix and match, the result of the outfit will be more stunning and the vibes are totally different. – Nasrul Afzal Jamil[1]

The secondhand clothing or thrifting industry, once marred by stereotypes of grubby garments exclusively for the underserved, underwent a remarkable transformation in recent years.

On a global scale, consumers are increasingly turning their backs on fast-fashion chains and instead embarking on treasure hunts amidst towering piles of patchwork, vintage denim, and gently worn clothing. According to ThredUp Inc., an online thrift marketplace, the secondhand industry has successfully penetrated the mainstream market with $177 billion in global sales in 2022[2].

The thrill of these treasure hunts lies in the potential to leave or check out with a bargain. 

Imagine if I got a leather jacket for only RM10, why do I have to buy a new jacket that is more or less the same and costs almost hundreds of ringgit? In this thrift world, quantity and quality must go hand in hand.  – Nasrul Afzal Jamil, 24[1]

However, the changing demographics of consumers also play a significant role, and they come with their own set of preferences and priorities. The same report points out that Generation Z and millennials are expected to be the driving force behind the industry’s growth by 2027, making up nearly two-thirds of secondhand purchases[2]. This shift in consumer behaviour didn’t happen overnight.

It is seen as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to purchase clothes, both topics which are especially relevant to younger consumers. The reduced prices of second-hand apparel also make clothes which would otherwise be too expensive more accessible. – Thredup 2022 Report[3]

Thrifting à la mode

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the most devastating economic event in recent decades, there has been a seismic shift in consumer behaviour worldwide, where frugality was key to survival. The changing tide became more mainstream in the global lens with music and pop culture’s influence[4].

While Salvation Army and Goodwill shops are the epitome of thrifting in some parts of the world, in Malaysia, secondhand clothing shops are more commonly referred to as “bundle shops”.

The term “bundle” refers to how clothing items are packed within a gurney sack. These bundles may contain a diverse assortment,  including jeans, shirts, shorts, or blouses, each with varying conditions and, as a result, differing price points[5].

Within a bundle, there are four distinct grades of goods. These grades are categorised as “head,” “body,” “tail,” and “trash,” each reflecting the condition and quality of the clothing items, with corresponding price distinctions[5].

These establishments have long spread their roots in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, as well as Jalan Chow Kit which is famously known as the “Bundle Centre of Kuala Lumpur” since the 1970s. Their growth was significantly fueled by the influx of migrants from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 1980s. Remarkably, some of the well-established bundle shops in Malaysia have been in continuous operation since the 1980s[4].

Today, like many other 90s trends, thrift stores have made a resurgence in the local fashion scene, popularised by social media and celebrities donning them.

The Lure Of Bargain

It is something that Naim Azhar, 29, who went viral locally for donning luxury items bought from thrift stores noted as “a tremendous rise in doing this kind of shopping, and it’s quite fascinating[6].”

Thrift or bundle stores have proliferated across the country, varying from modest roadside stalls to expansive warehouses managed by corporate chains. Among these enterprises is Jalan Jalan Japan, an importer of Japanese items, boasting eight stores in the country. Another prominent name is Family Bundle, a chain with a multitude of outlets primarily situated in Kuala Lumpur.

In Johor, Khairulnizam Haron, 30, who runs a bundle store, shared that his business has improved by 15% during the pandemic. And these days, his customers are those who are in need of cheaper clothing options[7]

However, I noticed that nowadays, people are opting to get second-hand items because of the price and not merely as a collector’s item.Khairulnizam Haron, bundle store owner[7]

Buying bundle clothing can increase consumer surplus, which is the difference between what a shopper is willing to pay and what they actually pay.

For example, if someone is willing to pay RM100 for clothing, but the new item costs  RM50, the initial consumer surplus is RM50. However, in the second-hand market, where the same clothing is RM10, the surplus increases to RM90. Through this method, more purchasing power is granted to the customer[4].

Second-hand goods can really help those who are struggling to make ends meet, as just RM50 can get them a few items of clothing.– Khairulnizam Haron, bundle store owner[7]

Source: The Star

In some cases, bundles can be bought in the original gurney sacks, as Noor Ellya currently supplies for hundreds of businesses nationwide that sell them either online or offline. 

We sell the clothes in large sacks weighing between 20kg and 100kg each. The price varies depending on the type, condition and brand of the clothing. The most expensive one we have is RM13,500 for a bag of clothes weighing about 45kg. This is because the clothes in the bag are of higher quality and could be sold for as high as RM200 per piece. – Noor Ellya,  a clerk for a business supplying second-hand clothes to shops[7]

In some thrift shops, the conventional bales of clothing and gurney sacks have made waves for a new trend known as “selam bundle” (diving into bundle clothing). 

It’s quite literally one guy climbing on top and tearing it open with a knife, and just like pulling stuff out,” he said, “and people start diving into it, seeing what they like. – Amirul Ruslan[6]

It’s easy to be under the illusion that the supply of clothing in the bundle clothing industry is limitless or that it all originated from the closets of Malaysians who conducted extensive spring cleaning. Reality, however, tells a different story.

The Migration Of Bundle Items

The influx of secondhand clothing that washes up on our shores carries along a sinister origin story.

Source: Unsplash

A single clothing item may have more “immigration stamps” or travel history than many of us. It may originate in a factory in Taiwan or Bangladesh, be sold in the United States, donated to organisations like Goodwill, shipped in bulk to Malaysia and end up in a closet, where the cycle may very well continue.

This is because we get most of our items from all over the world, such as Thailand, Japan, South Korea and European countries. – Khairulnizam Haron, bundle store owner[7]

In Malaysia, a wholesaler has assumed the role of gatekeeper for clothing that gets exported or distributed to businesses seeking bales of clothing, much like the one operated by Nor Ellya. Depending on the needs and discerning preferences of shop owners, certain items may be selected for curated shops, while others may be purchased in bulk by these shop owners.

You buy the bale, you bring it back to the shop, you break it open, and you know, maybe if you’re lucky, there’s a good piece of designer clothing in there that didn’t make it through the screen at the thrift store and the sorting warehouse in Mississauga. – Adam Minter, the author of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale[6]

It may seem that Malaysia is on the short end of the stick. However, what fuels this industry is the ongoing demand for these bales of clothing. In 2019, the Observatory for Economic Complexity reported the United States emerged as the largest exporter of used clothing, with exports amounting to a substantial $720 million, while Malaysia imports $105 million of used clothing.

They want them. There are wholesalers buying in these places, and then distributing them. – Adam Minter, the author of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale”[6]

Bundle Shopping Leaving A Positive or Negative Impact? 

For consumers, buying thrifted or items from bundle stores on the surface seems to be the right choice that saves cost as well as keeping clothes out of the landfills. After all, purchasing a used item of clothing has a significant positive impact on the environment.

cloth landfill
Source: genzher. org

According to the thredUP 2019 Resale Report, buying secondhand clothing extends its life by an average of 2.2 years and reduces its carbon, waste, and water footprint by 73%[8]

However, the growing popularity of thrifting can also lead to an increased demand for secondhand clothing. This, in turn, can drive up prices in thrift stores and may lead to the return of consumers to fast fashion as people search for affordable, stylish options.

Additionally, we have a few affluent Gen X customers who shop with us occasionally. These customers are usually huge vintage enthusiasts looking to score gems for their collection. – Serene, owner of local online vintage store Astlyr & Blythe [9]

Globally, there has been an increasing worry of gentrification in the thrifting landscape, as resellers or bundle shop owners claim a more niche space that could drive up the prices of secondhand clothing for a more coveted, affluent market, swaying away from serving low-income customers.

For me, gentrification is not just about thrifting, it’s about our environment, social classes and so much more. It is much deeper than just thrifting. It causes a class divide and also allows people of higher income groups to be ignorant of issues that do not affect them directly but may affect people of their community from lower income groups. – Putrika Rafie, consumer[10]

To keep their shelves stocked, some thrift stores may receive more than they can sell. This can result in excess items that are not sold and may end up in landfills, contributing to waste.

Buying secondhand is undoubtedly one way to reduce waste. It’s better than seeing the clothes going straight to the landfill. It’s a way, but it is not the way. The basis of waste management is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. – Lorraine Chai, fashion writer at Grazia[11]

Next In Fashion

In 2015, Indonesia took a firm stance by banning the import of second-hand garments, and in 2023, they implemented an even stricter crackdown. This resulted in the destruction of $5.3 million worth of illegally imported second-hand clothing, all in an effort to protect and safeguard the country’s textile industry.

Malaysia, however, remains mum on the meteoric rise of the market, which has only opened up opportunities for mushrooming bundle sellers from night markets to curated vintage stores for high-end customers. The country has existing archives of textiles, from songket to pua kumbu, in which social enterprises and governmental bodies have committed to uplift and modernise.

Source: The Department of National Heritage, Malaysia, 2008

New product designs and research findings shared with entrepreneurs and the craft community can certainly help increase the variety of craft product offerings in the market that are more attractive, high quality and meet the needs of consumers at affordable prices. Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing,  Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister[12] 

But there’s no denying that traditional textiles, such as batik, come at a premium price, from lower than RM100 up to RM200, depending on their quality and are often more suited for formal occasions.

The future of the fashion industry in Malaysia holds promise as an increasing number of producers and designers embrace the sustainable fashion niche. Local fashion brands and designers like Hatta Dolmat have taken the lead in developing green collections using environmentally non-hazardous materials.

Even so, the price point becomes another crux as 45% of consumers worldwide have indicated that sustainable-driven products hang at a higher price point, making it inaccessible for those in the lower spectrum of income[13].

When seeking affordable and functional clothing, bundle shopping emerged as the more appealing choice. However, for households, this industry provides a solution to ensure their loved ones and families are dressed in items that can shield them from sunshine or rain.

As bundle shops continue sprouting up all across the nation, the weight of clothing bales entering the country speaks volumes – thrift is here to stay.

Explore our sources:

  1. C.Irene, F.Deris, H.Ramli, N.Nadhirah, P.Hazlyn & H. Sahimi. (2022). SUSTAINABLE FASHION, BUNDLE OF HAPPINESS AND OPPORTUNITIES. Link
  2. Z. Hirji. (2023). Inflation Is Helping Drive a Boom in Secondhand Shopping. Bloomberg. Link
  3. ThredUp.(2023). Resale Report 2023. Link
  5. Chen. G., (2012). Bundles of opportunity. The Star Online. Link
  6. E. Marcus. (2022). How Malaysia Got in on the Secondhand Clothing Boom. The New York Times. Link 
  7. A.Thirulmani. (2022). Bundle shops draw bargain seekers. The Star. Link
  9. N.M.Entaban.(2022). The pre-loved clothing craze is growing in popularity as more people embrace the idea of buying second-hand pieces. The Star. Link
  10. H.U.Md Zaki. (2022). Thrift shopping: when the line blurs between thrift and vintage. Sinar Daily. Link 
  11. L.Chai. (n.d.). GREEN COMES IN ALL SHADES.Grazia. Link 
  12. N.A.Mohamed Radhi. (2023). Craft industry expected to continue growth. New Straits Times. Link 
  13. Agency. (2023). Are sustainable products too expensive? The Star. Link

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