The university of ukay

Read this first before you scour through the racks of an ukay-ukay store for the first time

GREAT FINDS. You'll find useful items in an ukay-ukay store if you have the patience to scour through racks. Screen grab from YouTube (Jeff Werner)

MANILA, Philippines – Have you ever looked from outside an ukay-ukay store and wondered what you’ll find inside that will be useful for you? Have you ever watched people come, go or linger in an ukay-ukay store, trying on shoes that are not brand new?

If you have done so and have never been inside an ukay-ukay store, here’s a quick “orientation” into the wonderfully affordable world of ukay-ukay.

Ukay-ukay stores sell dirt cheap apparel and fashion accessories from various parts of the globe. There have been rumors that these are actually donated goods that’s why retailers can sell them at very cheap prices — but these rumors are not confirmed. We do not have them on record and, maybe, never will. 

They are considered to be the Pinoy version of the flea market. The term “ukay-ukay” is said to have originated from the Filipino verb “hukay” or “halukay” that means to dig. Unlike today’s ukay-ukay stores where items sold are arranged neatly in racks, the earlier stores sold goods in piles (called “wagwagan”) and one has to literally dig into these piles in order to find something they like. 

People are so drawn to ukay-ukay stores because — more than the average department store — they truly have it all: old stock jeans, leather wear, lace tops, cotton tops, silk tops, sleeved and sleeveless tops and dresses, prom wear, jackets, winter wear, slippers, shoes, boots, cloth and leather bags — everything you can’t find on mall racks.

These stores also have that distinct mouldy smell of opened balikbayan boxes. Ukay-ukay stores sell clothes for as low as P10 in some provinces in the Philippines to as high as P1,000 or more depending on the kind of item being bought. 

A lot of Filipinos also go to ukay-ukay stores to buy clothes and shoes that are, more often than not, branded sans the hefty price tag. You can find genuine DKNY or Gucci stuff on racks and shelves. 

But, ukay-ukay newbies, know that not all your encounters in and with the store will be pleasant. Some ukay-ukay shoppers walk away turned off by the “useless and tasteless” goods on the racks. There are also some ukay-ukay shoppers who go home simply duped. 

For example, some of my mom’s friends have bought shoes that turned out to not be a matching pair. Both shoes looked black on the rack; but a closer look revealed that one of them was navy. 

To be fair, some of the shoes on sale at ukay-ukay stores are great because they are Italian; if you’re lucky, you’ll chance upon unused ones. I myself bought a pair in Baguio many years ago and I was able to use it for a good year or two. 

Another funny story I remember was when my mom (aka the VIP of haggling and bargains) bought a blouse at an ukay-ukay store. She was always happy about her ukay-ukay purchases because she was sure that she would not see another person with the same outfit, shoe or bag. 

But one day, it happened: While walking down the street in Bicol wearing her new purchase, my mom saw another lady wearing the exact same blouse. My mom was so shocked but also found the experience so funny. She knew she could never underestimate the reach of ukay-ukay stores again.   

Other stories about ukay-ukay stores focus on the quality of the products sold. Since most items are old, finding a brand new item — albeit a very old unwanted stock — could be as hard as finding a needle in a haystack.

This means that there are many items that have damages: a tear here, a hole there. To still earn a profit for damaged wares, some scrupulous ukay-ukay stores deliberately hide these damages by placing the price tag over these problem areas. 

But not all items in ukay-ukay stores are of poor quality. Many Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) leaving for colder climates abroad often go to ukay-ukay stores to buy affordable winter clothing. Office workers also turn to ukay-ukay stores to buy stylish blazers or costumes for an office presentation.

This leads to my last ukay-ukay tale. 

One of my favorite ukay-ukay stories is the one my mom told me after her trip to Baguio. One of her co-workers bought a blazer from a stall at the ukay-ukay center on Session Road. She was so happy that the blazer cost her only something like P100. 

When she checked her find, she found HK$100 in one of the blazer’s pockets. At that time (the late ’90s), this was equivalent to around P500 — it was an instant profit of P400.

Shopping in ukay-ukay stores is not for everybody. There is a lot of inventory to go through and the smell can get to you sometimes.

But if you are patient enough to look for great finds like an original Versace piece, or something to tickle your fancy like a quirky one-of-a-kind bag, you may want to drop by and try your luck.

Sending you good shopping vibes, ukay-ukay newbies. Happy shopping! –

Ukay-ukay has become part of Filipino culture. If you have the right haggling skills and patience, you can find great items during your ukay-ukay escapade. If you want to shop for brand new fashion items, click here and enjoy great discounts online!

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