When everything feels more expensive, it’s good business to be known for bargains. Just ask thrift stores.
“It’s part of our mission to provide affordable goods to the community, and we’re recession-proof,” said Chris Roth, manager of The Thrift Shop of Boston in Roslindale. “There’s always outside economic forces, but at the thrift shop, prices won’t be going up to reflect that.”
At the Bureau Drawer in Quincy, sales have been increasing for months, and while bargain-hunters make up a big chunk of customers, the store has also seen more people coming out of concern about rising prices, said Rick Doane, executive director of the organization that receives the thrift shop’s proceeds.
“We’ve seen more customers talking about feeling the pinch on their wallets, and we’re selling more of everything,” Doane said.
Nationally, thrift stores run by Goodwill Industries International — the sector’s biggest operator — report sales up 4.4 percent year over year through May, compared with the same period last year, said Goodwill’s Bill Parrish.
And the US secondhand market overall is expected to double in the next five years, reaching $82 billion by 2026, according to ThredUp, an online consignment and thrift store.
The supply chain snarls that make some items hard to find on store shelves indirectly help thrift stores too. Since they rely on donations, secondhand shops have, for the most part, been insulated from the headaches of battling for scarce inventory.
“While you might go into another type of retail store and see they don’t have any of the products you’re looking for, there’s a significant chance we have those things on our shelves, so we see a lot of customers coming in for that purpose alone,” said Emerald Gottwald, director of stores for Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries.
Indeed, donations have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, as people spending more time at home clean out their closets. The Bureau Drawer saw “ludicrous levels” of donations, enough that the store had to move to an appointment-only donation system for drop-offs, Doane said. It’s still in place.
“Donations are still up,” Doane said. “We’re getting a regular, steady stream of donations coming in, and that’s keeping our store full of inventory.”
And thrift stores — most of which focus on raising money for a charitable cause — aren’t so focused on maximizing profits, either.
“We’ve tried to keep things pretty stable because our No. 1 goal is not to make money,” said Erin Venkatesh, who helps run Thrifty Threads in Brookline, which directs its proceeds toward outreach and social justice programs at United Parish in Brookline. “The money is great, because then we can help more people, but it’s also just about being a place where people can come and shop and feel welcome.”
Tim Tierney, business manager for the Salvation Army’s office in Saugus, runs five thrift stores that support the nonprofit’s Adult Rehabilitation Center. He’s starting to see more people in need come into his thrift shops, another reason to keep prices low.
“We’re sticking to the tried-and-true method, which is that we’re here to help,” Tierney said. “And we’re not here to gouge any customer.”
But even as many thrift stores view their commitment to selling affordable items as a “moral responsibility” to the community, as Doane put it, they’re not immune from the economic forces battering retailers of all kinds right now.
Take the cost of trucking. With gas prices skyrocketing to record highs, larger thrift stores like Goodwill that rely on vans to transport donations are facing the higher cost of fuel to power their vehicles. The labor shortage, too, makes it hard to staff.
“When you see our trucks out on the road, well, diesel is adding a huge expense to us there,” Tierney said. “Even with trying to get employees, it’s difficult. Those completely add to our expenses, and they’re things we have to watch out for.”
Still, thrift stores are no stranger to economic downturns.
“We’ve seen these types of fluctuations many times over the years,” Gottwald said. “Business could fluctuate, donations could fluctuate, our costs could fluctuate, we just have to adapt ourselves on the fly.”
Despite rising operation costs, many stores don’t plan on drastically raising prices. Indeed, low prices are part of the model to keep up with a quick pace of donations, Roth said. They need to sell stuff to make room for new goods.
“We can’t get stuck holding onto things,” he said. “We have to keep it moving, because more stuff is certainly coming in.”
For thrift stores, the silver lining in periods of economic downturn is that people remember secondhand shops exist and are there to serve the community, Doane said.
“We hope that more people come to see a thrift store as part of their normal retail purchases,” he said. “A gently used item should continue to be reused, not just in times of necessity but because it’s the right thing to do for the environment and the world.”
Annie Probert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.