Thrift Stores: Trendy or Trash Bins?

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

by Nicole Veenstra

Second hand stores offer new and gently used clothes for affordable prices.

Since the beginning of the recession, which officially began in late 2007, Americans have spent their time coming up with various new and creative ways to save money, usually through getting rid of objects and entertainment they have deemed unnecessary. Monstrous, gas-guzzling SUVs can be seen sitting on car lots in exchange for smaller and more gas-friendly vehicles, expensive products have become less expensive in order to sell and some businesses have locked up their doors forever because of a steep decrease in customers.

Some industries, however, remain to thrive, even during the most depressing of times. People still need the bare minimum to survive, and luckily for the food and clothing industries the bare minimum seems to include both. Despite the fact that food and clothing are necessary no matter what the economy looks like, though, the question of where to buy and how much to spend remains.

“Why go to an expensive restaurant when you can go to a fast food place, or even the grocery store, instead?” one may wonder. The same type of question can be applied when shopping for clothes. Why shop in designer stores when there are resale stores all around, selling clothing for a much more modest and affordable price?

“I think shopping in second-hand stores is an excellent idea,” said Toni Steenstra, who volunteers at Ditto, an “upscale resale” store in North Haledon, N.J. “You’d be amazed how much stuff we get that looks brand new.”

Steenstra is a retired 76-year-old woman who has volunteered at various second-hand stores throughout the years. Prior to Ditto’s opening in September of 2010, Steenstra was a volunteer at The Corner Closet, another store located in Passaic County, N.J.

The Corner Closet closed its doors following Ditto’s opening, but both stores have something in common — they were created to support Eastern Christian School Association, which includes a preschool and elementary, middle and high school, all at different locations. Since it is a private school association education comes at a price, which each family has to pay per student every year. In order to help keep the costs as low as possible, Ditto helps out by giving all of its profits — besides what it uses for rent and to pay the owner — to the school system.

“Even though our store’s profit goes to a specific organization, the customers that come in are not typically [Eastern Christian] people,” Steenstra said. “Most are strangers who I’ve never seen before. They just come in because they live in the area and have heard about it.”

Many of the second-hand stores, specifically those referred to as “thrift stores” have a focused reason for opening and a desire to help those in the surrounding area, whether the store originally came about because of a mission or charity.

“We use all the clothes we can,” Steenstra said. “If something is damaged beyond repair, though, we put it in a black bag and somebody from a mission [close by] comes and takes it away. After that, they can decide whether the clothing is decent enough to wash and give away or if it’s beyond repair. It’s easier for them because a mission can give clothes away, rather than having to get money in return for it.”

According to HowToConsign, giving a large amount of the profit to charities and organizations while being run by volunteers is normal behavior for one type of second-hand stores.

“Thrift shops raise money for nonprofit charities,” the website says. “These range from The Salvation Army and Goodwill types to the smaller church-based shops run by volunteers. They obtain goods through donation or consignment.”

In addition to thrift stores, consignment shops are another type of second-hand stores.

The U.S. Small Business Administration states that “consignment is a resale business involving three parties – the owner of goods or items (consignor), the seller (consignee) and the buyer (customer).”

The website goes on to explain that the consignee typically owns a resale shop that sells items belonging to multiple consignors. This is different than thrift stores because when the item is sold, both parties receive a portion of the profit. Customers may also come to find higher priced clothing in consignment stores because both parties are expecting to be paid.

According to The Association of Resale Professionals (NARTS), “resale remains healthy and continues to be one of the fastest growing segments of retail. There are currently more than 30,000 resale, consignment and thrift shops in the United States.”

NARTS credits the attraction of second-hand stores to the excitement customers feel when they find something beautiful for a fraction of the price.

“Resale shopping attracts consumers from all economic levels,” the website says. “There is no typical resale shopper, just as there is no typical resale shop. No one is immune to the excitement of finding a treasure and saving money.”

However, some consumers worry about the quality of clothing that can be found in second-hand stores.

“I don’t see any reason to buy clothes at a second-hand store,” said Robert Breeman, a junior at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. “Go to Kmart or Wal-Mart [instead]. I just bought a pair of sweats from Wal-Mart over the summer and couldn’t be happier with them. Plus, I am guaranteed to be the first owner and have the highest quality of clothing without rips or holes.”

Other consumers can see the benefit of both second-hand stores and regular retail stores.

“Honestly, I prefer shopping at regular stores, but I really do enjoy going to second-hand stores from time to time,” said Michelle Van Lenten, a junior at Monmouth University. “I think second-hand stores are great for finding unique clothes and for saving money.”

Jill Templeton, a junior at Rider University, agreed with both sides.

“I like thrift stores but I definitely think they are a hit or miss,” she said. “Sometimes it depends on the day and it obviously depends on the selection the store offers. Honestly, there are some that basically just offer a bunch of stuff that no one would ever want, which is what I don’t like.”

Since the downturn in the economy, however, more consumers have been turning to second-hand stores as a way to save money while still satisfying their retail craving.

In fact, “2009 marked the first year that the National Retail Federation [NRF] recognized resale shops as a bona fide category in its industry statistics and surveys,” according to CoStar Group Inc. “In NRF’s [2009] survey, which polled consumers on their back-to-school shopping plans, 18.2 percent of people said they plan to shop in resale and thrift stores this season.”

NARTS offered up more statistics, taking information from a study done by America’s Research Group, a consumer research firm. According to the study, “about 16-18 percent of Americans will shop at a thrift store during a given year. For consignment shops it’s about 12-15 percent.”

The study then compares these statistics to retail shopping, stating that 11.4 percent of Americans shop in factory outlet malls, 19.6 percent in apparel stores and 21.3 percent choose to shop in major department stores.

Through this research, it appears that second-hand stores are quickly making a name for themselves in the competitive retail industry.

Resale shopping has also become more a part of the media with Bravo’s new show, “Fashion Hunters.”

“Fashion Hunters” airs on Tuesday nights from 10:30-11 p.m. and follows four workers at Second Time Around (STA), a national upscale consignment shop. Though STA is based in New England, “Fashion Hunters” films at the store’s Mott Street location in New York City.

According to STA’s press release issued after it was given the opportunity to have a show on Bravo, “Second Time Around is an upscale consignment company that carries new and almost-new designer clothing and accessories.”

During the show, the workers can be seen negotiating with consignors while ultimately trying to find a price that both sides can agree on. Since STA’s main goal is to sell designer clothes to customers who normally could not afford them while always keeping the positive reputation the store has earned over its 37 years in business, various fashion “experts” come in to take a look at the clothes, determining whether each piece is knock-offs or the real deal.

Every second-hand store depends on its reputation and word-of-mouth to get the name out, regardless of the type of clothing it sells and whether it is a consignment or thrift store.

Cleanliness is usually a major concern for second-hand store customers when buying clothes, which is why most workers and volunteers do all they can to keep their store tidy.

“I think we have been so successful because everything is so clean,” Steenstra said. “I volunteer at the receiving line and we make sure everything is in place and clean enough to be shown on the floor. I think our attention to this is why we have so many clothes waiting to get out into the store.”

Breeman offered some advice for stores if they are looking for ways to lure in new customers that may be cynical.

“Stores could maybe include little biographies of their items including where it came from and who owned the product beforehand,” he said. “That’d be pretty cool.”

Whether a person is a fan of resale or a bit more skeptical, location appears to be the main criteria when choosing what store to shop in and what to steer clear of.

“I think that if a store was in a bad area, it might have some negative connotations,” Van Lenten said. “You never know what cool stuff you can find, though. Plus, even if the clothes seem a little dirty, that’s what washing machines are for.”

Breeman had a similar opinion to Van Lenten’s, even though their overall opinions on resale shopping seemed to differ.

“If I was forced to go to a thrift store I would choose one in a nicer neighborhood,” he said. “I feel like the neighborhood can definitely dictate the quality of the clothing.”

Regardless of a person’s opinion on second-hand stores, however, there are various ways to help out. According to Goodwill, one of the most well-known thrift store corporations in the United States, one can help continue the success of the resale industry through donating old clothes, shopping for new ones or volunteering his or her time.

“It is a fun place to volunteer because of how personable everyone is who helps out,” Steenstra said. “Plus, there is something for everyone if they have time to look. You know those jeans teenagers are wearing with all those holes in them? We have much nicer ones without the holes for less than half the price.”

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