The recession has given birth to a new kind of shopper, one that is price conscious out of necessity, but doesn’t want to give up the brands and the quality she has grown to love. Enter the thrift store shopper.
According to the 2010 Operating Survey by the National Association of Resale Professionals (NARTS), released in February, members reported increases in both sales and incoming inventory. The survey showed a growth in net sales of 12.7 percent for 2009 over 2008.
The increase is significant considering that overall retail sales were down 7.3 percent in that same period, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Additionally, increased resale shopping has resulted in new shops opening throughout the country at a rate of about 7 percent per year.
“I have regularly shopped in secondhand stores over the past year,” said Leigh Young from Grand Rapids, Mich. “Having lost my income, the prices are quite reasonable, and having donated for many years, I know that you can find good quality items.”
Sarah Bergin, executive director of Care and Share Thrift Shoppes in Souderton, Pa., has noticed a significant increase in traffic.
“Our business has definitely picked up in the past couple of years. We have even expanded our furniture and book shops in the past year due to increased sales,” Bergin said.
According to Goodwill Industries International Inc., more than 180 new or relocated stores opened in 2010. Total retail store sales increased 10 percent compared to 2009.
Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, for example, saw its retail sales increase 9 percent in the 2009 fiscal year over the previous year, and in 2010 increased 7 percent over 2009, according to Heather Hise, Goodwill’s communications and public relations specialist.
“Sales have grown steadily over the past couple years, but there haven’t been any large spikes as you might expect,” Hise said. “We think many of our regulars who have shopped Goodwill for years may not have as much money to spend these days. However, that trend is balanced by a whole new group of shoppers.”
While other retail segments have trimmed the fat on advertising, promotions, inventory and staff, the NARTS survey reports that members are actually putting more money into these areas.
With sites such as Craigslist, Amazon and eBay, and television programs such as Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers paving the way for consumers to get comfortable with used goods, the bargain-hunters that the recession produced makes shopping in thrift stores a natural progression.
Customer experience, service a trade-off?
Consignment and thrift store shopping is typically a different experience for conventional consumers than the archetypal retail environment. The question then becomes whether or not shoppers are willing to give up the customer service and more sophisticated merchandising associated with the traditional retail outlets in order to save money.
While consignment stores often have at least a small number of sales floor employees available to assist shoppers, thrift stores usually only have employees working in the back processing and tagging donations and cashiers in the front for check-out.
It seems that most thrift store shoppers anticipate a different atmosphere and realize they may not get the same assistance, while consignment store enthusiasts report a higher rate of satisfaction with customer service.
“Generally the customer service [in thrift stores] is good, but unless you are at a high-end thrift store, the layout and aroma of the store can leave something to be desired,” said Dannelle Shugart of Washington, D.C.
Brenda Jones of Vincentown, N. J. praised the consignment store she frequents for having exceptional customer service.
“People are friendly and stores are usually not busy so I have a sales person to myself. If they do not have what I am looking for, they will let me know if something comes in,” Jones said. “I have had a salesperson actually call another consignment store and ask them if they have what I am looking for.”
‘Thrill of the hunt’ eliminates any formerly perceived stigma
Nicole Poole, writer and founder of Thrift Store Confidential, a website “dedicated to helping secondhand virgins navigate the world of thrift store shopping,” was recently named Goodwill Industries of New York and New Jersey’s 2011 Style Icon.
“I've been thrifting my entire life and thought that others could benefit not only from my tips and expertise, but also by simply hearing that it's ok to be broke, and that there are ways around it,” Poole said. “I've seen a 500 percent increase since we began, currently with more than 15,000 readers per month.”
Poole started the site in 2009 as a way to help consumers affected by the recession keep their sense of personal style without breaking an already broken bank. She points to the growth of her site as an indicator that the former stigma of shopping secondhand is dissolving because of increasing mainstream popularity.
“The stigma no longer applies now that it's about bargains instead of need,” Poole said.
There is also the thrill of the hunt. The initial draw is the ability to afford clothing, housewares and furniture, but there is also a thrill associated with finding quality items at a low price, Poole said.
“It feels as if we've gotten away with something,” Poole said. “Traditional retail loses its luster once we realize how much an item will sell for after it's been worn a couple of times. And I think that's the key to the new consumer; if the price is right, we'll gladly walk a mile in another person's shoes.”