Slump Is Good News

In A Tough Economy, Thrift And Resale Shops Boom As Consumers Look For Ways To Save

August 06, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Jill Hettinger, retired from a private practice in social work, always gets teased by friends because she prefers rummaging through the racks at thrift shops to shopping somewhere pricier like a department store.

"It's not like you don't have money," she said they always tell her.

But because of the weak economy, more people are discovering the secret that Hettinger, raised by a frugal father who lived through the Great Depression, has known for years.

The resale business, which includes thrift and consignment shops, is booming as consumers, who have lost their jobs or watched the values of their investments portfolio or homes plummet, look for ways to pinch pennies. Even those people whose jobs haven't been hurt have become more price-conscious.

The Wise Penny thrift shop in the Govans neighborhood in Baltimore recently renovated its store and said the improvements couldn't have come at a better time. Year-over-year sales nearly tripled in June at the shop, where the profits go to programs run by the Junior League of Baltimore. They hope the more than $2 million in renovations, which made the store brighter and more open and the entrance more visible to people traveling on busy York Road, will attract even more shoppers.

"People are looking to save money and they feel like here they're getting a deal," said Stephanie Bartal, president of the Junior League of Baltimore.

While major retailers are downsizing and closing stores, the number of resale and thrift shops has increased 5 percent a year for the past 5 years, according to the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops.

"This is an industry that always thrives during a slow economy," said Adele R. Meyer, executive director of the organization. "When the economy slows down, people have to look for ways to save money."

The Winmark Corp., which owns several resale concepts including Plato's Closet and Play It Again Sports, reported a 28 percent sales increase for the first quarter ended June 27. There is room for expansion in the Baltimore market, said president Steve Murphy. Sales at the 23 stores run by Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake are up 9 percent this year.

The back-to-school crowd at the Goodwill stores, which usually doesn't pick up until August, started coming after the Fourth of July, said Doug Hiob, senior vice president of retail operations for Goodwill of the Chesapeake.

Hiob said the stores are attracting people from all walks of life: rich and poor, young and old. People are not only looking for deals, but some buy things and resell for a higher price to make some extra cash.

"I say we're blessed," Hiob said. "It's been a good year for sales and a good year for donations."

Jeffrey Harden has owned a Plato's Closet consignment store in Towson for 8 years and said last year was the best ever, with a 12 percent increase in sales. He said this year is trending about the same. The store targets teenagers with trendy clothes from places such as Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch and Forever 21. People can sell and buy clothes at the store.

Harden said even teenagers, who tend to have large disposable incomes, are hurting because of the economy. Their parents are giving them less money, and they have to compete with unemployed adults for jobs.

"The economy has definitely influenced business," Harden said. "We're definitely busier than we were when the economy was much stronger on both sides of the business. There are more people who are looking for ways for extra cash so they're bringing in clothes to sell. That's what went up first. As we got more inventory, sales followed."

Murphy said that the entire chain is seeing growth in new customers, which is good for future business because most people will continue shopping the stores even after the economy improves.

On a recent Wednesday around lunchtime, Hettinger and others streamed in and out of The Wise Penny. The store takes "gently used" items, but sometimes boutiques and other stores will donate new items they couldn't sell. Nordstrom dress shirts for men were going for $10 at the store. Never-worn Steve Madden sandals were priced around $30, while Revlon lipstick was on sale for $3 a tube.

Hettinger tried on two pairs of pants, while her husband looked at shirts for himself. She said she has been shopping at resale stores for as long as she can remember and that it's just common sense to pay less for clothes.

Bill Howard, 46 and a small business owner, said he probably buys about 30 percent of his clothes from thrift stores. "You can't beat that," he said holding up an $8 pair of Lands' End jeans at Wise Penny.

"I do it because it's a way to catch a good bargain," he said. "Why pay more if you don't have to?"

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