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The Increasing Popularity of Thrift Stores

In the midst of the season for peak sales at conventional retail outlets and in the current economic climate, you might expect that local thrift stores have been struggling, at least for donations. But a recent poll of thrift store managers across Flagstaff shows that sales are holding up well. Indeed, a quiet revolution is underway in many people’s attitudes towards thrift store shopping.

It’s perhaps at Flagstaff’s two most local thrift stores where donations, sales and optimism are particularly buoyant.

Originally from Northern England, Peter Craven has been the store manager at Hodgepodge on east Route 66 for five and a half years. With over 50 volunteers, Craven says that sales have increased each of those years – and especially since 2008 – with donations increasing proportionately to sales over the period. Part of their success Craven attributes to Hodgepodge’s visible location on Route 66, combined with their good relations with the real estate community, which helps them find out when there are move out sales and when furniture becomes available.

The only real slow down Hodgepodge has experienced recently has been in donated large (i.e. multi-thousand dollar) pieces of furniture such as custom built cabinets and beds. Such items come from the upper end of the housing market, which Craven says has borne the brunt of the decline in property sales. Otherwise, the store is maintaining a good selection of furniture and other items. “Books are currently proving particularly popular,” Craven said.

His business strategy is simple. “Our overall plan is to keep stuff going out as fast as it’s coming in – and we’re doing that every month.

“Everyone gets a tax donation form so they can write off to taxes, which has proven a big factor in encouraging donations, helped hugely by the good cause the store supports.” Craven said. Hodgepodge profits go directly to Northland Hospice.

That optimism is matched at Cedar Closet over at 2919 N West Streer. Staffed entirely by volunteers, Cedar Closet supports a number of local good causes. According to Pat Munro, who has been running the store since May, they have seen a huge boost in trade recently. The store has made physical improvements to the building while actively seeking donations.

“The store has changed 100 percent since last year and we’re doing the best business since opening 20 years ago. I’m not sure if it’s the economy or the changes we’ve made here – or both,” said Munro. “But we now have a truck so we can pick up donations and business is booming. We’ve doubled to tripled our daily income compared to five years ago”.

Munro says that the store is now attracting a whole new array of shoppers, partly due to the improved quality of their merchandise – “we’re now being more careful about what we put out in the store,” she explained. “Shoppers have commented that our store now feels like a boutique,” Munro said, “as well as complimented us on good prices.” In a recent sale featuring three items of clothing for $1, they made 3,000 sales in one day, without any prior advertising.

Over at St Vincent de Paul on 2113 N. East Street, Barbara Packard has been volunteer store manager for the last 10 years, assisted by a paid staff of three and around 50 volunteers. Like the 16 other outlets operated by the Society of St Vincent de Paul across central and Northern Arizona, proceeds go towards local charitable work focused on helping people stay in their own homes when they fall on hard times. Packard says that they had a sticky patch after last Christmas. “Donations almost came to a standstill from January until the end of April, but come summer, things improved. Our shoppers are really trying to stretch their dollars, but sales have picked up recently – winter coats have been a big seller!” she said.

Packard has noticed that their clientele now encompass a much broader range of people than it used to. She says their store emphasizes personal connections. “Most customers are repeat shoppers who come in at least once a week – and getting to know them is an important part of business,” she explained. “Our volunteers feel good about what they’re doing and there’s been no drying up of support as times have gotten harder.” Packard says that she’s proud that all the money her store generates “stays in Flagstaff.” Her approach to thrift store management is, “If you have a ‘glass-half-full’ approach to life, that positive attitude multiplies and feeds a good atmosphere into the store.”

Of all the thrift stores in town, Savers (which is a national chain) has an environment most similar to that of a regular retailer. “We deliberately promote that image,” said Christine Leiter. She has been store manager since June at the location on Highway 89. “Our staff works hard to keep a large, continually updated range of goods on shelves and hangers. We’re very particular about the products go on sales floor – we put out 6,000 new items every day and have 17 paid staff processing donated items,” she explained, saying that staff are excited to see the range of donated goods that come through the door every day. The store buys those donated goods from Big Brothers & Big Sisters – money the charity uses for their mentorship programs for young people. Leiter says that in the current economic climate, maintaining good thrift business is all about promotion – “the more the word goes out, the better donations are.”

The registered nonprofit Goodwill is the other nationwide chain thrift store in town. Their donations and retail manager for the last seven years, Andrew Marano, says that this year they’ve seen the normal peak in Halloween sales carry over into November, with double digit sales increases over last year. Marano says that although people are donating a little less often and in smaller quantities this year, overall, Flagstaff has been generous with donations, something for which Goodwill is continually grateful. And if it seems like Goodwill’s prices have gone up recently, Marano says that’s largely due to improved training of team members to spot higher quality items and price them more appropriately. ”But pricing of our regular item has not changed for the last two years,” Marano said. He’s keen to point out the local good work that Goodwill does in Northern Arizona – that includes creating new jobs and providing job training for people with skills barriers, as well as providing an estimated 8,000 free showers for the homeless this year.

Back at Cedar Closet, it would seem that Pat Munro speaks for many in the thrift store community when she says that one of the biggest changes in recent times has been that the stigma has gone – people are not ashamed to shop at thrift stores anymore. And with the great bargains to be found, the good causes supported and the valuable recycling their work represents, the current success of local thrift stores represents a win-win situation all around. FBN



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