Nonprofit thrift stores growing rapidly

Shoppers prioritizing bargains and reuse

By Shannon Prather / Star Tribune

Pam Kaiser browses the shelves of figurines at Goodwill in Roseville, Minnesota, in search of vintage items that speak to her family’s roots.

“I love to find Scandinavian things. I’m Swedish and my husband is German,” said Kaiser, who is a thrift store regular. “It’s fun to find things that are unique.”

She has plenty of places to treasure hunt these days. Nonprofit thrift stores are experiencing unprecedented growth to handle both a growing appetite for secondhand bargains and a burgeoning amount of donated items.

Thrift stores, viewed a generation ago as places where poor people shop, are now attracting more middle class, environmentally conscious consumers in search of vintage and one-of-a-kind items.

“The temperament and mindset about reusing things have changed dramatically, and that’s across the country,” said Michael Wirth-Davis, Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota’s president and CEO.

In the past seven years, Goodwill has more than doubled its Minnesota retail locations to 51, including outlet stores and boutiques. It’s seen online sales soar with merchandise on eBay, Etsy and its own auction site

Sales topped $94 million last year, revenue that helps fund its job training programs.

“Traditionally thrift does a little bit better when the economy is down,” said Brent Babcock, Goodwill’s chief sales and marketing officer. “Right now, we are experiencing the opposite of that in our organization. The economy is strong and we are doing very well also.”

The Twin Cities Salvation Army’s nine thrift stores brought in $15 million last year to support its drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. Family Pathways, with locations in the north metro suburbs, has expanded from eight to 11 secondhand stores and has seen revenue grow to $5 million to fund its food banks, youth, senior and family services.

“In the late 1990s, early 2000s, a lot of folks — particularly younger folks — thought it was OK to purchase thrift goods,” Wirth-Davis said. “With Craigslist, they were selling things to each other. It became much more mainstream and another venue for shopping that people found fun and a place to find what they were looking for.”

The trend is national.

“The entire industry has been growing, and growing faster than other retail,” said Adele Meyer, executive director of Michigan-based NARTS: the Association of Resale Professionals.

“People are much more aware of sustainability and recycling, and it’s the thrill of the hunt. Plus, people have a lot of places to spend their money — their children’s education, retirement, vacation homes. Consumer goods is a place they can save.”

Tom Canfield, who as the Salvation Army’s business administrator oversees its thrift stores, said the Great Recession 10 years ago changed how people viewed secondhand shopping. Many first-time customers walked into thrift stores out of necessity and were surprised by the quality and selection they found. Even when financial fortunes improved, people continued thrift-store shopping, he said.

Nonprofits have redesigned their stores to attract and keep this new class of customer. Thrift stores feel more like big box retailers, brightly lit with polished floors and wide aisles to accommodate shopping carts. Merchandise is neatly hung and sorted by size and style, just like standard retailers.

“We provide a really clean, friendly, safe, bright environment for people to shop. It’s not a dingy place to go to get subpar merchandise,” Babcock said.

Leslie Ford flipped through a rack of women’s tops at Goodwill in Roseville last week. Nowadays, she said, she rarely goes to the mall to shop new. Instead, she prefers the wide selection and lower prices at thrift stores.

And the clientele feels decidedly middle class. “People with money shop here,” she said.

‘Taking care of the planet’

Impact on the environment has become a large part of the nonprofits’ branding to new customers.

“We are seeing the younger generations, the millennials shopping our stores more frequently. One of the aspects of that generation is environmental consciousness,” said Chris Lenzen, Family Pathways’ director of thrift stores.

Goodwill resold or recycled 58,000 tons of goods last year and behind the scenes has focused on recycling donated items that don’t sell in its retail locations, said Chris Simon, Goodwill’s director of facilities and logistics.

Simon and his team have found companies that buy bulk stuffed animals, old record albums and baled plastics and clothing. TSA even buys Goodwill’s leftover suitcases for training.

The Salvation Army does similar bulk recycling and reselling, diverting 4.3 million pounds of textiles from the trash each year.

“It’s incredible the amount of product we are diverting out of the waste stream,” Canfield said. “My biggest competition is the landfill.”

That environmental mind-set also is influencing retail operations. Many Goodwill stores are outfitted with solar panels on the roof and electric-vehicle charging stations in the parking lots.

“We need to take care of our planet,” Wirth-Davis said.

Supporting their missions

As thrift stores grow, the nonprofits that run them are trying to better explain how their proceeds support their mission. Most people who donate and shop know they’re supporting a good cause, but they’re often not sure exactly what, nonprofit leaders say.

“That’s been one of our biggest challenges,” Babcock said.

The Salvation Army uses its thrift store proceeds to support its Adult Rehabilitation Center, where men take counseling and classes on anger management, life and job skills, and Christian values.

Part of the program is “work therapy,” which often means working in the thrift operations. The goal is to help men find jobs and restart their lives.

“The program changed my life completely,” Canfield said.

Goodwill offers job training in automotive, banking and finance, construction and medical office work. Sheila Danurahardja completed Goodwill’s eight-week banking and finance course and landed a job at U.S. Bank.

“I was looking for something different, but I didn’t have a financial background or a finance degree,” Danurahardja said. The program introduced her to banking, helped her network and gave her job tips.

“I’ve always shopped Goodwill, but now I understand a lot better what they do,” she said.

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