Image: Stephanie Edwards-Musa
AP
Stephanie Edwards-Musa did the shopping her children at ThredUp.com.
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updated 12/15/2010 4:36:04 PM ET 2010-12-15T21:36:04

Stephanie Edwards-Musa finished her Christmas shopping early this year. Her 13-year-old daughter is getting a PlayStation 2 and clothing from Hollister and Aeropostale. For her 5-year-old son, it's a bundle of toys, mostly "Star Wars"-themed.

The bill? $45.

Edwards-Musa, a Houston Realtor, found these items used on ThredUp.com, an online toy exchange that launched last week. Parent-to-parent swapping sites like this one, growing in popularity, offer families a way to clear their closets of toys and clothes their children have outgrown in exchange for items cast off by older kids.

"I've always been frugal," she said, "but the PlayStation was my best Friday doorbuster yet."

Thrifty parents are finding plenty of places to barter on the Web. At the online community SwapMamas.com, hip moms trade goods from baby slings to clarinets without any money changing hands. Swap-seekers place hundreds of listings a day on classifieds service Craigslist.org, while parents just looking for freebies gravitate to the local forums on Freecycle.org.

ThredUp CEO James Reinhart says the site has benefited from middle-income Americans' heightened frugality; its membership, now at 50,000, has grown steadily since it debuted with clothing only back in April.

The fallout from the recession still has many parents struggling to balance the imperative to spend less with the desire to give their kids the things they want, especially during the holidays.

Even in hard times, "parents still want to do whatever it takes to create magic for their kids on Christmas and give them that pleasure," said toy analyst Chris Byrne — one reason toy sales have held steady over the past few years while other categories fell.

Americans spend more than $21 billion a year on toys and games, according to market research firm NPD Group, and many of these items end up getting thrown away or stuffed in basements and attics. ThredUp Marketing Manager Karen Fein says the company expects to save parents $500,000 this holiday season.

Of course, many parents unload their kids' outgrown goods the old-fashioned — and most eco-friendly — way: by handing them down to friends and family.

Used playthings are not always greener, however. Some product-safety groups caution against buying toys secondhand because it's tough to guarantee the products meet safety standards regarding lead and other chemicals. Also, when a resold toy lacks its original packaging, parents may not recognize whether it's age-appropriate or contains pieces that are choking hazards, said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Still, the secondhand market for children's clothes and toys generates $3 billion in sales annually. ThredUp's investors, led by Silicon Valley's Trinity Ventures, hope the startup can carve out a sizeable chunk.

To facilitate a swap, ThredUp provides a flat-rate shipping box a parent can fill with giveaways. The donor lists the contents of the box on the site, where the bundles are organized by age and gender. To claim a box, a user pays $5 to ThredUp plus $10.70 for shipping, and ThredUp e-mails the sender a prepaid shipping label. Members rate each other based on the quality of the stuff they receive.

The emphasis on convenience is a response to what Reinhart sees as "massive inefficiencies" in the used-clothing market. Parents are too busy to spend time "digging through the racks for those diamonds in the rough at Goodwill," he said.

Jill Snowden, a mother in Contra Costa County, Calif., was never big on consignment shops. When she started noticing discarded baby paraphernalia piling up in her home, she searched the Web for a way to de-clutter.

"I listed a bunch of boxes and when they started getting picked and getting good reviews, I got kind of addicted," Snowden says.

ThredUp users are quick to point out it's not an anonymous marketplace but a community. On the site's Facebook page, members share pictures and make special requests like "any toys with a ladybug theme." For Snowden, a first-time mother, the camaraderie is as enticing as the dirt-cheap stuff.

"I can ask, 'What toys is my baby going to want when she's 2,' and I get a lot of really helpful responses," she said. "These are like-minded people with their own kids, and I trust them."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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