As hard times drag on some thrift stores thrive

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Tuesday, April 5, 2011 12:01am
  • Business

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Kansas City preschool teacher Elizabeth Eastburn walked down the aisle last April she wore an $800 wedding gown from a major bridal retailer. Only she didn’t pay $800 for it.

She paid $15 for the never-worn dress at a thrift store.

With money tight these days,

this is Eastburn’s new way to shop.

“I’ll go to thrift stores first,” she said. “You can find anything, anytime. It’s like a garage sale inside.”

So on a recent day off from school, with book shelves and exercise pants on her shopping list, Eastburn wandered the aisles of Hillcrest Thrift Shop, one of several stores changing their ways to attract, and keep, new customers like Eastburn.

With its Le Boutique (sequined evening gowns for $15) and sporting goods department ($3 for a Royals T-shirt), the store is one of her favorite stops. Manager Lou Warner couldn’t be happier.

“We’re going gangbusters,” he said of business. “It’s the economic times the way they are. People are just needing to find things cheaper.”

And thrift stores are thriving. Members of the Association of Resale Professionals, which represents nearly 1,000 consignment and thrift stores, reported that net sales increased 12.7 percent in 2009 from 2008, trouncing overall retail sales that declined 7.3 percent over that time.

“People are so distressed right now,” said the group’s president, Kitty Boyce, who runs a shop in Rochester, Ill. “A family with a limited income has to spend more on gas and food, and they have less money to spend on clothing and housing and everything else.”

As Americans become increasingly comfortable with and interested in buying “used,” thrift stores are stepping up their game. Stores are being remodeled and redesigned with traditional retail details — think mall-bright lighting, dressing rooms, shopping carts, public rest rooms.

“We want to compete. We want people to see that we are an avenue that they can use and they don’t have to deal with the image of dirty, smelly thrift stores,” said Teri Mairet, manager of Synergy in Style thrift store in Gladstone, Mo. The store is run by Synergy Services, which helps abused women and children.

Synergy and other thrifts have launched marketing efforts, too, emphasizing the eco-friendly, reuse-recycle nature of buying secondhand and, in the case of charity thrift stores, what the money is being used for. Many now are using Facebook and Twitter to tell customers about in-store specials, daily merchandise offerings, even drawings for prizes.

There’s no typical thrift-store shopper anymore, say managers who are selling to young people buying clothes for job interviews, displaced workers buying clothes for their new job, families and seniors — busloads of whom pour into the Hillcrest store on the weekly Seniors Day.

“People, I think, are getting smart in the economy,” said Synergy in Style manager Mairet. “And telling their neighbor, ‘Hey, look what I got. Guess how much I paid.’ “

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