The young woman at the end of the Goodwill aisle wriggled into a slinky, black cocktail dress but found it to be too small.
“Sometimes I’m in a dress mood,” said Emily, one of a legion of thrift shoppers in the Inland Northwest.
The 22-year-old explained that she took up thrift shopping as a child, accompanying her parents into the world of good used deals.
“It’s fun. It’s amazing and cheap,” she said, declining to give her last name.
Goodwill couldn’t be happier.
Business is up at the larger charity thrift stores in Spokane. The trend has spread to smaller nonprofits and the for-profit sector, where smaller variety shops are capitalizing on the demand for lower-priced, used merchandise.
Goodwill has seen a 7 percent increase in sales over the past year, while Salvation Army in Spokane reports that sales are up 24 percent above its goal in its current fiscal year.
The Arc of Spokane opened its new thrift shop at Ruby Street and North River Drive last month and immediately drew regular shoppers and a full parking lot.
Economic doldrums have only helped the thrift industry as people search out the best deals – young hipsters eyeing a different look, middle-class families pressed to outfit growing kids, professional women keeping up appearances, seniors stretching budgets.
Today, there are more than 40 thrift stores of varying sizes in the Spokane area and another two dozen in Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene.
“Is it the economy? Are people thinking about being financially cautious, or is it cool to shop here?” asked Heather Alexander, Goodwill Industries’ director of marketing.
It’s probably all of those things and more.
Consumerism fuels thrift industry
At its heart, thrift shopping is a fortuitous cycle of buy-donate-buy.
On one side are people who have too much stuff and want to get rid of it. They donate to charity to help others.
On the other side are the thrift shoppers. They may be low-income folks or people intent on finding treasures. Still others are committed to reuse and recycling.
In the middle are the charitable agencies that use their net income to run a range of programs for people in need.
Anna Moran, thrift store manager at Salvation Army, said she believes thrift stores are thriving in part because many shoppers buy more than they need and at some point have to get rid of it. So they donate it to charity.
“People have come to the realization they can get rid of things,” Moran said. “We get bags and bags of stuff that are brand new.”
She said her crews went into one home where a resident had acquired boxes filled with unopened merchandise purchased through television shopping channels. Family members needed to get rid of it, and Salvation Army was more than happy to take it.
Some donors are intent on keeping up with the latest styles and finest clothing, so they get rid of high-quality clothing quickly.
Some customers know that and are on the hunt for such coveted items.
Then there are shoppers looking for ultra-good deals. They find them in thrift store clearances. Shoppers new to these stores should ask how clearances work.
Clothing is the most-sold item at thrift stores. Household goods are second.
Stores also report that used furniture sells well, along with sporting goods and used electronics.
At Goodwill, a pair of lightly used K2 skis with Salomon bindings was marked at $24.99. Those may have retailed at one time for several hundred dollars.
A 13-inch Panasonic picture tube television was $7.99.
“Why should someone spend $35 or $40 on slacks when you can get them here?” said Alexander at Goodwill.
That’s exactly the question posed in the hit 2012 hip-hop song “Thrift Shop” by artist Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis. Thrift shopping takes on a fashionable beat:
I wear your granddad’s clothes,
I look incredible.
Song aside, there’s a well-established fashion trend revolving around thrift shopping.
In Spokane, fashion consultant Cheryl Smith outfits dozens of her clients with clothing purchased from thrift shops.
“I’ve been doing thrift shopping way before it became popular,” she said.
Her favorite find is a Peggy Hunt swing coat from the early 1960s with gold brocade flowers and side slash pockets.
She shares her knowledge with clients through her business, Positive Presentations, outfitting them at a third the price of retail.
“I am the best at saving people a lot of money and having them look fabulous,” she said.
Only nonprofits defined as thrift stores
The National Association of Resale Professionals says the for-profit shops that sell used goods are not thrift shops. The association defines thrift shops as charitable nonprofits and says the others are resale or consignment shops.
Used goods were a $13 billion industry as of 2010 when the last survey was compiled, the association reported. Sales were growing at 7 percent a year at the time.
Goodwill Industries alone generated $2.69 billion from its 2,500 stores in 2010, the association said.
Goodwill has 11 retail stores in the region, including Colville, Ponderay, Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, Lewiston, Moscow and three in Spokane County. Goodwill operates an online store at shopgoodwill.com and has recently opened a Spokane outlet store where items are sold by the pound.
The charitable operations plow their net revenues into programs for housing, food, foster care, vocational rehabilitation, job training, people with disabilities and after-school care.
Goodwill has increased the number of people it has served from 2,800 in 2008 to 6,500 in 2011 and 2012 because of a growth in sales. Figures for 2013 have not yet been compiled.
Salvation Army just recorded its first $1 million year in sales at its two locations, said Moran, the organization’s thrift store manager here.
Customers hooked after one good buy
During the holidays, Aimee Savey was browsing the aisles at Salvation Army, 2020 N. Division St., where she found an unusual item: a lap desk for $7.
She said she lives in New York, where thrift shops are “picked pretty clean.”
In Spokane, “There’s a lot of good thrift shopping.”
Brian Holloway, development director for the Arc of Spokane, said that agency’s new store already has customers who will wait for the donation truck to arrive so they can have the first pick of used furniture.
The used-goods trend, which dates back quite a few years, has spun off to numerous small variety-thrift or consignment shops.
North Monroe Street has several of them.
Colleen Corkery runs The Bag Lady Thrift Boutique, 3111 N. Monroe St.
“People get tired of the mall cookie-cutter stuff,” she said.
Her shop combines antiques, framed art and collectibles with used clothing, sourced from a variety of places.
She said she thinks the popularity of television shows such as “American Pickers,” “Pawn Stars” and “Baggage Battles” has encouraged people to take up shopping for used items.
One of those people is Ron Hooper, who was browsing Corkery’s shop for items he might resell at a profit.
“The owners of these stores sometimes don’t know what they really have,” he said.
At the nearby Bachelor Pad shop on North Monroe, owner Tony Brown has amassed a curious collection of manly merchandise, including older stereo equipment. His vinyl record albums sell for $3 and $5. His clothing stock includes a selection of Navy-style wool pea coats.
“This is a thriving industry. It has been for decades,” said Adele Meyer of the National Association of Resale Professionals, which has more than 1,000 members.
The secret, she said, is in the customers: “Once they get that first good buy, they are hooked.”