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Consignment shopping can be like a competitive sport, demanding a discerning eye, quick reflexes and persistence.

But once savvy shoppers learn the ropes, they can find great deals on designer furnishings and singular accessories at 25 percent to a third off the retail price. And with so many rich veins of well-heeled homeowners, the Wine Country is fertile ground for patient pickers who love to sweep in for the spoils.

Consigning is also a nice way to turn unused household items into cash. It's not the road to riches, consignment shop owners warn: Consignors can expect to get back 40 to 55 percent of what an item ultimately sells for, and that may only be 12 to 15 percent of what they paid new. Still, it's better than having things gather dust in paid storage.

Every six weeks or so, sometimes up to 80 bargain hunters line up hours before the doors open at 9 a.m. at ReHealdsburg, a consignment warehouse in a nondescript business area in Healdsburg. Once inside, shoppers can claim anything from $20 vases to $700 sofas to one-of-a-kind pieces that may have originally sold in a high-end designer showroom for thousands of dollars.

When the big doors roll up, shoppers surge into two large rooms where everything is artfully arranged in vignettes like a designer showroom. Throughout the three-day, Friday-through-Sunday sales, new pieces are brought in to replace items sold, so it's constantly churning with available merchandise. Items that don't sell are marked down and restaged in two more sales before being offered back to owners or donated to charity.

It's a fresh take on the more traditional consignment shop.

"The original concept was to create a sense of urgency when you know it's only going to be open at a certain time," said Sonny Childers, an inveterate collector and consignment shopper himself who co-founded the business a couple of years ago.

In December, he and his partners sold to Kathy Weil, a former logistics expert for global courier DHL, and Kim Endries-Tyner, a retired marketing director for Dun & Bradstreet. Both wanted a second career that would be fun. Childers stayed on as a consultant and stager. The next sale is Nov. 15-17.

"A lot of our consignors are downsizing, going from a large home to a smaller home, and it's quality merchandise," said Endries-Tyner. "And many are designers re-doing their showrooms. So all of a sudden we get a truckload of everything."

ReHealdsburg finds the best in quality and design, but not everything is expensive. There's something in every price range at each sale, starting at accessories for as little as $12. They also seek out the unusual, like a giant Indonesian oar for $150.

"You could find a settee for $200," said Childers, "or a high-end quality Roche Bobois leather sofa that retailed for $17,000 and we sold for $1,900.

"Design and quality sell. And not everybody can pay retail for that kind of quality," he added.

Experienced consignees know what prices the market will bear. Their shoppers are bargain hunters so consigners need to know they won't make a killing. ReHealdsburg, which keeps 50 percent of a sale, sold a pair of $30,000 Italian gilded wall sconces for $2,200 and a massive "live edge" wood table for $2,800 that retailed for $12,000.

Owners of traditional consignment shops adhere to similar guidelines of keeping prices affordable and merchandise moving.

"They need to be flexible with me to move their item," said Naggie Alikhani, owner of Vignette in Sonoma.

"I have some people who we call consignor addicts. They come in every other week. I have a lady who comes in almost every day," she added. As an interior designer, Alikhani often features clients' merchandise as well as goodies from other designers working for upscale clients and real estate agents trying to empty a house.

Occasionally, Alikhani said, someone comes in with a piece too precious to accept, like the Ming Dynasty vase she recommended go to auction instead.

Another man came in trying to offload a painting he said his wife didn't like.

"I said, why don't you take it to an auctioneer and have it appraised?" she said. "He did, and it sold for $32,000."

<em> You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@presdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</em>

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<strong>THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW</strong>

<strong>— Consignment shops are not thrift stores.</strong> They're highly selective. Most are looking for pieces that are newer, traditional or have a timeless look that doesn't appear dated. Items must be in good condition with no stains, damage or obvious signs of wear. In addition to furniture, many consignment shops also feature accessories like lamps, rugs and drapes.

<strong>— Most consignment shops suggest new consignors send in or email photos first,</strong> particularly large items, so they can vet quality and discuss prices. Some potential consignors may want more for an item than a consignee knows it will realistically sell for. And getting a reputation for high prices will turn off their customers. But many don't mind people bringing in small items. It's best to call ahead or email a shop first to check out its preferences.

<strong>— If you're consigning, providing a sales receipt</strong> or documentation of the retail price or what you paid, helps the consignee set the price. Consignees usually price items at 1/3 to 1/4 of the retail price. Policies vary but they may keep an item for 45 to 60 days, dropping the price the longer it stays in the shop. "If I have not sold something within the first three weeks, it's not the right price," said Sherri Mila, owner of The Furniture Consignment Gallery in Santa Rosa. Consignors will typically receive 50 percent of what an item sells for.

<strong>— If you're a shopper, check out multiple stores.</strong> Consignment shops aren't like traditional furniture stores with large stocks of familiar items that can be re-ordered. Good stuff tends to go quickly in consignment shops. The Early Bird Catches the Worm rule usually applies. And different shops feature different types of merchandise. Some may have a lot of designer pieces. Others may just feature better or moderate quality, mid-range furnishings. Some, like The Red Umbrella in Petaluma, specialize in hand-painted, Shabby Chic pieces and Mid-Century retro looks.

<strong>— Consignment shops typically don't go for antiques </strong>although some cool vintage stuff can make the cut. They may have a few vintage or antique pieces in the mix but they're usually going for items that have a certain sophisticated design look. As Dana Pritchard of the Red Umbrella in Petaluma says, "We have a discriminating eye. We're looking for things in really good condition that fit with current trends."