Nonprofits see a market for thrift stores in the Treasure Valley

adutton@idahostatesman.comSeptember 9, 2012 

Alyce Milstead of Boise and her daughter were among the first shoppers at Boise’s second Goodwill store, which opened Thursday morning in the middle of a strip mall on State Street at Glenwood. Milstead, who runs estate sales and is an antiques dealer, hoped to score some of the valuable cast-offs that end up on shelves and racks in a growing number of Treasure Valley thrift stores.

With two recent additions — the Goodwill on State Street and a new Idaho Youth Ranch store on Broadway — the local thrift-store market seems saturated. But the nonprofits that run more than 30 stores in the Treasure Valley see no end to demand.

Local shoppers, including those at Goodwill on opening day, love hunting for a bargain — whether it’s a marked-down dress from Target, a sturdy $20 kitchen table, a pair of skis or a $5 painting worth 50 times as much. People seek bargains in good times and bad. But the down economy drove up use of the stores, changing shoppers’ consumption patterns and turning them on to “gently used” stuff.

More than 400 shoppers came through the new Boise Goodwill in the first hour, said Sandi Thomas, assistant vice president of marketing for Easter Seals-Goodwill in the Northern Rocky Mountain region. The store and the 40 employees working that day sold almost 1,400 items in the first hour.

Milstead said she left Goodwill two hours after she walked in, with a receipt for $119.

“We filled two carts,” she said. “And we’re back for more.”

Like any seasoned thrifter, Milstead knew the Goodwill staffers would be replenishing the store’s inventory all day long. That afternoon, Milstead had a modest shopping cart: a few kitchen tools, an old metal thermos she estimated was worth about 10 times the price, a cowboy paper-towel dispenser she’ll use to display cowboy hats.

Her daughter, Theresa, found steak knives for $2.99 that were worth $40 on eBay.

The morning rush “was crazy,” Milstead said. “People were grabbing things left and right. ... They were out of (shopping) carts.”

Jason Asher, donor and community relations officer, said almost everything on the floor Thursday would be gone by Sunday.

RETAIL A DIFFERENT WAY

Unlike earnings at consignment shops or other retailers, the profits from most Treasure Valley thrift stores go to nonprofits that provide social services. The stores are located near each other in some places. There’s an Idaho Youth Ranch a few doors down from the new Goodwill, and a strip mall at Fairview Avenue and Five Mile Road in Boise has several thrift stores — including Savers, which isn’t nonprofit but does partner with nonprofits such as The Arc.

Officials say siting thrift stores near one another is a benefit. “As more folks have opened up (stores), we haven’t seen a negative impact on our business,” said Jeff Myers, vice president of business enterprise for Idaho Youth Ranch. “In fact, if somebody opens up near us, it has a positive effect” by drawing in more thrift-store shoppers.

Idaho Youth Ranch is Southwest Idaho’s most prolific thrift-store operator, with 11 stores in Ada and Canyon counties and a pay-by-the-pound center on Irving Street in Boise. Myers said the stores’ sales pay for about 70 percent of the nonprofit’s services, including a long-term care program at a ranch outside of Rupert, a crisis shelter in Boise, substance abuse treatment in Coeur d’Alene and family counseling and adoption services in various parts of the state.

Asher said Easter Seals-Goodwill appreciates what Idaho Youth Ranch does, and the two nonprofits try not to overlap their services. Easter Seals-Goodwill has programs for adults, such as training people to enter or re-enter the workforce, but has expanded into areas such as case management for children. Goodwill employed 249 people in the Boise area last year and provided job-training or other services to 6,067 people.

Around the Valley, there are thrift stores whose revenues are funneled into specific areas: job-hunting assistance for veterans, HIV and AIDS prevention, animal rescue, affordable housing, programs for victims of domestic and sexual violence, activities for seniors, assistance for new parents, the homeless and hearing-impaired and other philanthropic programs.

The Assistance League of Boise has a volunteer-run thrift store. According to its 2010-2011 annual report, 80 percent of its income went straight to its six programs, including Operation School Bell, which gives new clothing to about 3,600 children a year.

Its sales in 2010-2011 were about 9 percent higher than the previous year. After a recent addition — the store’s size doubled and got a new receiving area in April — sales picked up more. Sales average $1,300 a day, said Jeanne Fitzgerald, president.

“I think our economy is such that many people are starting to shop at thrift stores,” she said. “But I think they also realize we have a quality product.”

How do the nearly three dozen stores manage to stay stocked all the time? Donations are tax-deductible, and in some cases an Idaho tax credit is stacked on top of that, giving donors an incentive to drop off their stuff instead of throwing it away or selling it online or at a garage sale.

But there’s one downside to running a donation bay. Donors may drop off porcelain collectibles and never-used DVD players, but they also drop off ripped jeans or 1990 television sets that weigh a ton and won’t sell for a penny. The nonprofits send as many of the not-so-gently used and unsellable items to be recycled as possible. Some stores made it a policy not to take certain items.

Before the new Boise Goodwill store opened, workers sifted through donations and sent off thousands of pounds to be recycled — a mountain twice the size of everything in the store on opening day, Asher said.

So, if you’re throwing your spring cleaning into the trunk of your car, leave out the infant cribs, car seats, tires, boxy computer monitors, busted VCRs and that T-shirt with the pit stains.

That telescope lens, mink stole, buffalo-head-nickel belt buckle and lifesize dwarf-pony stuffed animal? The Idaho Youth Ranch will gladly take it. When the Youth Ranch opened the new store on Broadway in August, those were among the items for sale.

THE CULTURE OF THRIFTING

Business is so good, even more thrift stores will be opening soon.

The Idaho Youth Ranch plans to add another one or two stores to the Valley by July, Myers said.

Sales nationally for thrift stores were up 7 percent in 2011, and Myers said that’s true locally as well.

“Thrift shoppers have been consistently loyal to thrift stores, both for us and around the country, throughout the recession,” he said. “But during the recession, folks were even more conscious of making sure they were getting the most for their money.”

For some Boise residents, thrifting is a business.

Asher said a box full of classic Atari video games at the new Goodwill sold right away Thursday morning. So did a book of classic comics posters.

“There’s definitely a business to be made shopping the thrift, if you know your items” and the market for them, he said.

Other shoppers at the Goodwill grand opening were there because of the craftsmanship they find in thrift stores’ old furniture and clothes, and because they can stock up on out-of-season clothing at low prices. For some, thrifting is a hobby or a form of retail therapy that doesn’t demolish their wallets.

“Once in a while, I really luck out on the clothes, and I’m just on cloud nine,” said Susie Frank, a Boise woman who calls the senior discounts at thrift stores “the greatest gift I ever got as a senior.”

Frank was getting her hair done Thursday morning with her husband when she heard about the Goodwill grand opening. She usually goes to thrift stores on Wednesdays, but this was an exception. An upcoming trip to Italy had her on the hunt for black, easy-to-pack clothes.

“I’ve been feeling a little bummed, and I knew this would give me a lift,” she said.

After holding up a few promising shirts, Frank recalled her “best score” — a set of four Waterford crystal glasses with the labels still on them, for $1.99 a glass.

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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