Outlets, refashioning open new horizons for thrift stores

Roger DuPuis//October 21, 2016

Outlets, refashioning open new horizons for thrift stores

Roger DuPuis//October 21, 2016

The West Coast rapper — real name Ben Haggerty — together with musical partner Ryan Lewis, immortalized a Seattle Goodwill Outlet in the video for their 2012 hit “Thrift Shop,” which is about hunting for 99-cent bargains while other hip hop artists splurge on designer fashions.

Harrisburg-based Goodwill Keystone Area was inspired by the efforts of the Seattle Goodwill to adopt the outlet model. The new format gives secondhand clothes a third chance to avoid the landfill if they can’t or don’t get sold in Goodwill’s traditional retail stores, Goodwill spokeswoman Jennifer Ross explained.

Goodwill’s first outlet center in this region opened in Reading in October 2011, and the organization now operates five, including a new Camp Hill outlet in Lower Allen Township, which opened this summer.

In the process, Goodwill has benefited from a blossoming new market for used clothing through what some call the refashion movement — consumers who are not just cost-conscious, but looking to be environmentally conscious by reusing garments. Others comb the racks and bins for items that can be cut, altered and sewn into all-new creations for themselves or for resale.

“Recycling/reusing and refashioning clothing — along with repurposing furniture/décor — have helped the entire resale industry, both for-profit and (not-for-profit) stores,” said Adele R. Meyer, executive director of Michigan-based NARTS: The Association of Resale Professionals.

Amy Spangler

“I believe it helps them increase sales with both their current customer base and also with new customers to resale,” Meyer said.  

And that, Ross said, helps Goodwill generate more money to continue its mission of supporting people with disabilities and other barriers to independence gain skills and find jobs, which deliver more than just a paycheck.

Goodwill serves 4,100 people in 22 central and southeastern Pennsylvania counties. The skills they acquire in the organization’s programs help them build self-confidence, independence and friendships.

“It really helps give these people a chance to be a part of the community,” Ross said.

Tracking trends

Goodwill Keystone Area is not the only nonprofit group in the region that relies on thrift stores to generate funds for charitable programs, but its experiences — particularly with the outlet centers — underscore trends affecting the thrift-store model.

A $60 million social enterprise, Goodwill earns about 85 percent of its revenues through sales, Ross said. About 12 or 13 percent comes from government sources, she added, with the remainder coming from individual donors.

“There is a shrinking number of dollars out there,” she said, referencing government funding and personal donations — noting that the pressure only adds to the importance of managing the stores as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the late 2000s recession was a time when thrift stores did well, Ross said, as cost-cutting families looked to economize wherever they could. But tough times don’t last, and Goodwill’s challenge was how to maintain momentum once the economy picked up again.

The mission might be nonprofit, but that doesn’t mean Goodwill officials don’t pay attention to retail trends and changing customer preferences.

During an interview at Goodwill’s Cameron Street offices in Harrisburg, Ross gestured toward a shelf containing books on retail industry best practices, by experts such as author and analyst Paco Underhill. Organizing stores into departments, with clear signage, was one strategy Goodwill employed. The group also recognized that part of the equation involved making it easier for consumers to donate their goods — critical to maintaining stock for shoppers.

“We have no inventory control,” Ross explained. Unlike for-profit retail stores, “we can’t call up a factory and say, ‘we need X amount” of clothing.

For one thing, “we were out of the donation bin game,” Ross said. Goodwill got back in, but instead of putting bins on others’ property, it has focused on placing them in its own lots, where they can be monitored and managed by Goodwill staff.

In addition, Goodwill is in the process of adopting another idea from a West Coast chapter: “goBins,” designed to be placed at indoor locations, such as the lobbies of office and apartment buildings. They’re equipped with electronic sensors so Goodwill staff can see when the bins are full and collect the goods for distribution to stores.

Amy Spangler

The local organization also has focused on maintaining stores in locations where it is convenient for donors to drop off clothing.

For example, Goodwill’s Lemoyne location, on Hummel Avenue, has been one of its most popular donation centers, with 2,000 square feet of retail space and 5,000 square feet overall. The group was looking for a spot with more space, but did not want to leave the general area.

When an 8,000-square-foot space opened nearby in the West Shore Plaza, it looked to be a perfect fit, Ross said.

“It’s very convenient for donations,” she added.

For the organization’s retail operations, recent years have brought success. The number of retail stores has increased from 35 in 2008 to 44 today, including five attended donation centers. Its footprint in the midstate includes 18 stores and two donation centers in Dauphin, Cumberland, York, Lancaster and Lebanon counties.

Finding new fans

The opening of Goodwill’s Reading outlet store five years ago opened the doors to a new retail landscape.

Unlike traditional Goodwill stores, the outlets organize clothing by bins and sell it by the pound. Items sent to the outlets include clothes with minor defects, which may not be ideal for retail sale but are otherwise sound. Also, items that don’t sell in the stores are eventually rotated out to the outlets in order to keep stocks fresh.

Additional outlets followed in Chester, Montgomery and Lancaster counties. The Camp Hill outlet opened in July.

The 65,000-square-foot Hartzdale Drive location also provides warehouse and distribution space for Goodwill’s local operations, Ross said, which had been based at Cameron Street — which was crowded, but also located in a flood plain.

“Truck docks were limited here,” Ross added.   

The outlet stores are very much a hit, including with the refashioning crowd.

Goodwill’s Reading outlet proved popular from the outset. Some eager shoppers come from the New York City area — more than 100 miles away — to check out new distributions of clothing, Ross said.

“It does extremely well,” she added.

Perhaps that’s because the refashion movement is international in scope. Its devotees share ideas and tips on blogs, websites and social media apps.

Toronto-based Sheri Pavlovic maintains the Confessions of a Refashionista blog, where she writes about the sustainable and ethical aspects of thrift store shopping.

“Shopping at thrift and charity shops is the easiest way to get started creating a sustainable, eco-friendly wardrobe and household,” Pavlovic said. “I firmly believe that fabulous, affordable, unique style can be achieved by anyone without supporting the growing phenomenon of cheap, unethically produced fast fashion.”

Jennifer Elliott is an Iowa-based editor for Refashion Co-op, a collaborative blog that showcases refashioned clothing projects and shares techniques. Elliott, who said she is 5 feet tall, described how she began refashioning clothes because it was so hard to find good-fitting garments off the rack in retail stores.

“Every time I go shopping for pants, I know I’m going to have to hem them,” Elliott said.

The blog has a community of about 100 contributors worldwide who share their finds and creations, she added, with a waiting list of additional contributors.

Elliott said she likes shopping at thrift stores in her area, including Goodwill and Salvation Army locations, because “they vet their clothes pretty closely.” Customers can count on finding quality garments.

Refashioning, meanwhile, allows consumers with a creative streak to turn found items into new creations that fit well and show off some personal flair — colorful floral patterns are among Elliott’s favorites. Others specialize in adapting vintage styles to modern needs.

Still others, such as large families, find the practice offers a cost-effective way of outfitting youngsters with personalized items.

“That’s important, because not all hand-me-downs are going to perfectly fit” the next child, she added.

For Goodwill officials, knowing that donated clothes are staying out of landfills and finding new uses, including via refashioning, is important to upholding the other element of their mission: being good stewards of the items people give them. “We answer to the community, and we take that very seriously,” Ross said. “They’ve entrusted us with their things, and we need to do right by them.”