Chester resident Deborah Zeman has shopped at thrift stores for more than two decades.
Each trip still is like going on a treasure hunt.
“This is a Goodwill bag,” said Zeman, gesturing to the black leather designer handbag she was carrying while shopping recently at the Goodwill thrift store in Short Pump.
“When I’m in New York, I go to Goodwill. You can really find some stuff up there...It’s like McDonald’s. If I see the blue [Goodwill] sign, I’m going to stop,” she said.
In contrast to the challenging times at some traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, it’s happier times at some secondhand and used merchandise stores.
Sales at used merchandise stores in the U.S. topped $17 billion in 2016, up every year since 2009, according to the Census Bureau’s Annual Retail Trade Survey. The figures are the latest available, with 2017 data due out this month.
Compare that to department store sales. Though department store sales far outnumber sales at used merchandise stores, department store sales have been trending downward since 2008, according to the Census retail survey.
“People are into recycling. They are concerned about the environment. They want unique things. All of these things contribute to the [resale] industry doing well,” said Adele R. Meyer, executive director of Michigan-based NARTS, The Association of Resale Professionals, which has about 1,000 members.
“Plus, I think [resale] stores are much more sophisticated,” Meyer said.
A lot of people discovered thrift and other resale stores during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and stayed customers even when the economy turned around.
“In the past six to eight months, we have seen a growth in same-store sales,” said Bill Carlson, chief operating officer of Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia, which operates 34 thrift stores, including 17 in the Richmond area.
“Currently, we are running about 7 percent above last year. It bounces around a little bit,” Carlson said.
Sales had been holding steady for the previous three years. The agency’s 2017 annual report shows contributions and sales of donated goods totaled $47.6 million, up from $46 million in 2016 and $43.7 million in 2015.
About 20,000 to 25,000 used merchandise shops operate in the U.S., according to Meyer’s organization, citing data from a Dun & Bradstreet First Research report last updated in March. The category includes resale, thrift, consignment and antique stores. It does not include pawn shops.
Used merchandise is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S., according to a report on the retail thrift industry by Cascade Alliance, an organization that helps nonprofits create such ventures as thrift stores.
Goodwill stores, Salvation Army Family Stores, Habitat for Humanity ReStores and Scrap RVA, for instance, sell donated items and use proceeds to support charitable work.
Clothing, by far, is the biggest-selling item at thrift stores, and the typical customer is a woman shopping for herself or her children.
“Fast fashion” in which trendy clothing is mass produced in a short amount of time also has contributed to the popularity of resale shops. One report contends the average consumer in 2014 bought 60 percent more clothing compared to 2000 but kept it only half as long.
A lot of it ends up in thrift stores.
Yet some consumers take their clothing, furniture and other items to consignment shops, where consignors and the store split the price of an item sold.
Several consignment shops operate throughout the Richmond region.
One of them, The Hall Tree consignment shop at 12 S. Thompson St. closed in March after 46 years.
And the Consignment Connection, a home goods consignment shop with 5,000 square feet at 5517 Lakeside Ave., is closing after nearly 17 years. Owner Sandy Bremer said she lost her lease and needs to vacate the space by the end of June.
Resale shops are taking lessons from traditional retailers and straightening up. Aisles are neater. Signage is clear. Lighting is brighter.
“I’ve seen it when it was smelly and dumpy. I’ve seen it since it’s changed — it’s more like a department store,” Zeman said of thrift stores.
Another lesson they’ve adapted from mainstream retail — sales, lots of them.
At Goodwill stores, for instance, merchandise is rotated frequently. Clothing, the biggest merchandise category, is priced by category — $6.99 for women’s dresses, $4.99 for long-sleeve blouses, $6.99 for blue jeans, for instance — with some pieces individually priced. Merchandise has color-coded tags.
“We put in our stores almost 2,000 pieces a day,” Carlson said about the Goodwill stores. “If it’s going to sell, it’s going to sell in the first seven to nine days.”
On week three, items are 50 percent off. If it doesn’t sell, then it goes to Goodwill’s outlet stores where textiles are sold by the pound.
Salvation Army Family Stores discount clothing 50 percent on Wednesdays and occasionally have weekends where all clothing is discounted 50 percent.
Diversity Thrift on Sherwood Avenue in North Richmond has 25-cent days.
“There is an eight-week inventory cycle,” explained Ivan Trittipoe, Diversity Thrift’s senior store manager. “When it comes in, it’s at full price for four weeks. At week five, it goes to 50 percent off for two more weeks. Then it goes to 75 percent off.
“Then we have something called quarter weekend. For two days, everything that is sitting on the floor at 75 percent off goes to 25 cents.”
Diversity Thrift was founded by John Klein, who opened the Out of the Closet thrift store nearly 30 years ago to raise money for programs for LGBTQ youth, said Bill Harrison, Diversity Richmond president and executive director.
Klein started Diversity Thrift to support the Richmond Gay Community Foundation, now called Diversity Richmond. Business is going so well that the thrift store recently went to opening seven days a week.
“We give out about $30,000 a year,” said Harrison, naming some of the organizations to which funds are donated. “We also have partnerships with about 20 social services agencies in the city where if their clients need clothing they can shop for free here.”
Proceeds from Goodwill, the largest nonprofit thrift store operator in the U.S., support the organization’s workforce training programs. Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia last year worked with 6,868 job seekers, placing 1,644 of them in jobs.
The resale stores are getting smarter about marketing, and they are taking advantage of the concept of destination shopping by locating near other thrift stores.
The Salvation Army Family Store that opened at 7494 W. Broad St. last year is between two Goodwill stores, one a mile to the west and another about 2 miles east on Broad Street.
Also nearby at 7219 W. Broad St. is the West End Thrift Store, supporting the global mission work of West End Assembly of God.
Along Patterson Avenue in western Henrico County, three thrift stores — Hope Thrift, Thrifty Sisters Resale Shop and Crystal’s Closet — operate within a 4-mile stretch.
“You can get some amazing things,” said Beverly Binns, executive director at Thrifty Sisters Resale Shop, which supports the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor charity. The resale store opened in December 2012. Proceeds take care of the elderly poor.
“The sisters are a begging order. People brought things to them. They used to have yard sales. Some enterprising members and the [mother superior] at the time thought they would venture into brick and mortar and it’s been a success since then,” Binns said.
Goodwill’s Carlson said its competition is not just other thrift stores.
“If you look at that retail landscape, last year there were a number of reports talking about who in retail is sinking and who is growing. There were articles about T.J. Maxx and what they have been able to do, articles about Target. ... If you think about clothes and housewares, our competition is everything from garage sales to the mall,” he said.