GARDINER — Heidi Hilton doesn’t like to think of her consignment shop as a thrift store.

She prefers “previously owned clothing in a retail atmosphere.”

While many department stores have suffered in a limp economy, consignment stores and events have thrived — turning it into a multibillion dollar industry.

The National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, a trade association for consignment-store owners, says economic downturns present the opportunity for resale shops to attract new customers.

It’s one of the few “recessionproof segments of retailing,” the association said.

Hilton, owner of Raggamuffins Consignment, has owned the business for four years. She moved in July from across the street to a larger storefront at 279 Water St. She now has more space for her glass counter, clothing racks and window displays.

“Our customers really like the retail look,” Hilton said as she ironed a new batch of women’s blouses and sweaters. “The shop smells good, it’s bright and we have nice window displays. I get comments all the time on the nice retail experience we offer.”

She said people bring in freshly washed, used clothing, which she sorts through to remove any torn or stained items.

Her consignors, who each have an account at the store, get 40 percent of the sale price.

“People bring in clothes for extra cash and a lot of them actually turn around and shop here,” she said.

Tracey Thornton, a nurse from Gardiner, cleaned out her closet and brought in three bags of clothing.

“I do this frequently,” Thornton said. “I usually sell my clothes because I like to shop and I’m always buying more.”

The trade association for consignment store owners conducted a national survey in 2010 that showed a growth in net sales of 12.7 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Kitty Boyce, president of the association, said the slumping economy may draw people in, but once they visit a resale shop for the first time they are surprised with high quality merchandise and get hooked on a new way of smart spending.

“The popularity of resale has never waned, and we believe our members will come out of this recession in a stronger position — with a larger customer base — is a broader section of consumers explore the many options the resale industry has to offer,” Boyce said.

Hilton carries all brands including Gap, Banana Republic, L.L. Bean, Old Navy, Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Jill as well as accessories — purses and shoes — and jewelry. She even has a small men’s section.

“It’s like you’re going to the mall, but it’s all in one store,” she said. “There’s a stigma with what consignments are and we tried to bring it up a notch. The stigma is that consignments are a Goodwill or thrift store. And when people come in and see it’s more like a retail store then they keep coming back. They’re able to buy brands they can’t afford to buy new.”

Business has been so good, Hilton opened another store on Center Street in Auburn and has a website,

Down the street, The Girltrend Shop Consignment Boutique caters to the younger generation.

Jennifer Gaboury, a part-time clerk, was busy in the back room.

She said the shop carries more expensive designer brands like Banana Republic and Abercombie & Fitch, as well as prom dresses.

“A lot of kids come down here after school,” Gaboury said. “It’s nice for the parents that the kids are able to get affordable clothing. Instead of a $40 pair of jeans, they can pick it up for $10 and be the brand they like, which is important to kids.”

Consignments are not only for adults.

Children have their own shops, too, including Diddos For Kiddos & Teens in Manchester and Luv Bugs in Augusta.

Terry Hallett, owner of Luv Bugs at 81 Cony St., said business has been booming.

She sells children’s clothing and items like highchairs, baby walkers and pack-and-plays.

She said mothers like the bargains, especially in this economy where prices just keep soaring. Her shop is open six days a week.

“Business has been great,” Hallett said. “It’s increased so much with the economy. We carry quality items, all name brands that are slightly worn. There’s a lot of use left in them. People are thrilled they can buy them at a quarter of the price.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663