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Where Cut-Rate Meets Couture

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By Carlos Alcala

shopping-webRISMEDIA, March 4, 2009-(MCT)-When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. It’s a jest, but it’s true, at least in this sense: When the economic going gets tough, the tough go shopping-at thrift stores.

Millions of people have less to spend, so they spend more where goods cost less-at retail secondhand stores run by charities or for profit.

A downturn may mean an uptick for sales, but it can be a double-edged sword. Sales go high, but supplies go dry.

“Now that the economy is doing poorly, our stores are doing well,” said Wendy Steinmetz, spokeswoman for the family-owned Thrift Town, a four-state chain with 15 stores.

Some stores have been setting what Thrift Town dubs “world records.” Their weekly sales have hit all-time highs. A Thrift Town in Sacramento, Calif., is the chain’s leader. “We’re going gangbusters there,” Steinmetz said.

Folks with low incomes or a penchant for saving have long shopped there.

“I have seen a lot more new faces,” said Dianna Tucker, that store’s manager. She recognizes, and is greeted by, the regular shoppers.

Similarly, sales in the Salvation Army’s thrift stores in the western United States are up 3% over a year ago, said Dawn Marks, a regional spokeswoman. “Our clothing sales, our necessities sales, are up,” she said.

However, both chains have issues on the supply end.

“We’re seeing a decrease in large-items donations,” said the Salvation Army’s Marks.

In the Salvation Army’s southern U.S. region, overall donations are down by 5%; the trends are similar throughout the country, said Melissa Temme, a national spokeswoman.

Thrift Town-a for-profit business-buys its merchandise from charities.

To deal with falling donations, the Salvation Army may change its standards for what gets stocked.

Officials there also emphasize that the stores are the sole funding for their rehab centers, which provide counseling and job training for those with drug and alcohol abuse problems.

“We need to get the word out that the Salvation Army is helping people in need,” Marks said.

When donations go down, outreach operations must accelerate.

And it’s even tougher when families choose to re-sell rather than donate their stuff. Sometimes items go to for-profit stores where parents can sell one set of kid clothes to offset the cost of the next.

“We have seen an increase” in inventory, said Susan Baustian, director for the national used-goods chain Once Upon a Child.

The economy is one reason, she said. “Everybody wants to stretch their dollar a little more.”

The same is true for adult clothing.

“In December and January especially, there was an influx of people coming in and selling their stuff,” said Maggie Andrade of Vintage YSJ in downtown Sacramento. “They’d rather get a few bucks for it than give it away.”

Donors may choose to sell to boutiques, but shoppers still go to the thrift stores. “I wouldn’t go pay full price for this stuff,” said Christina Pate, an art graduate student shopping for art supplies at the Salvation Army on D Street.
Money is not the only motivation for shoppers.

A few years ago, even before the thrift hit the fan, Shelley Biermann made a vow to stop buying new clothing.

“I’ve always been a recycler,” Biermann said, explaining that it was a way to cut down on consumption. “It’s not so much the price.”

Recycling is even used to market used clothing.

The Crossroads Trading Co. chain of stores had online contests under the banner “Green and Gorgeous” to promote the idea of secondhand sexiness. Whatever the motivation, shoppers like Biermann have made some terrific buys. And, she admits, she just likes shopping.

“Shopping appeals to my hunter-gatherer primal instinct,” Biermann said. “I need to do it.”

True, said Vintage YSJ’s Andrade. “We (women) buy clothes just to buy clothes.” Apparently, having worn what you sell to a secondhand store isn’t always required.

“We have (secondhand) clothing items that still have tags on them,” Andrade said.

You’ll see the same at Thrift Town and Salvation Army, but it isn’t always a sign of someone having money to burn.

Salvation Army recently took in a donation from Mervyn’s. The shuttered chain had to offload goods that remained after clearance sales. Time for the tough to go shopping.

How to Be Thrift-Wise When Thrift Shopping

If you’re going to dive into secondhand shopping to save money, especially on clothing, here are some things to bear in mind:

- Get to know which stores carry the items you’re in the market for. Know what a fair price is. Just because it’s used doesn’t make it cheap.
- Try clothing on to make sure all buttons, zippers and closures are there and operative.
- Leave your gross-out sense at home. You don’t have to buy things that are dirty or smelly, but in some stores you may have to rummage through them on your way to a fabulous buy. You could bring hand sanitizer along.
- Don’t buy it just because it’s a steal. One shopper found a Ralph Lauren dress in the right size for $6, but turned it down, knowing she’d never wear it. The same applies to a 50-cent book you’ll never read.
- Be realistic about your ability and willingness to do alterations on something that almost fits. Is it really a deal if you don’t wear it or have to pay someone to alter it?
- If vintage clothing shopping, remember that older garments are sized differently. Or, as shopper Shelley Biermann puts it: “Today’s women’s sizing is a big, fat lie.”
- Just because something is worn stylishly by teens and 20-somethings doesn’t mean it belongs on an older shopper. Applies to guys as well as women.
- Don’t buy used bike helmets. Helmets can have unseen damage that renders them ineffective.
- Go back as often as is practical. Merchandise changes. Thrift Town says it adds 4,000 items each day to each store.
- Don’t just get clothing. There are other good deals there, too.
- Wash stuff when you get it home. And check labels before you buy to make sure you won’t spend a fortune dry-cleaning a cheap blouse that isn’t worth it.

© 2009, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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