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Today’s thrift stores aren’t like the thrift stores of old

When shoppers walk through an area Goodwill store, they should feel like they’re browsing through the aisles of a Target or a T.J. Maxx, not the Goodwill where their grandmother shopped.

That’s the goal of upgrades to 11 Goodwill locations in Western New York, said Tom Lynch, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Western New York. A splash of color, a more user-friendly layout and a brightened building are part of the improvements made to local stores. The Goodwill at 3177 Eggert Road in Tonawanda reopened May 29, the latest store to be remodeled.

Motivated by flat sales and new competition from for-profit consignment shops, thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army have been upgrading their facilities to attract new customers, while still catering to the consistent shoppers that have been supporting the stores for years.

The main focus has been on improving the overall shopping experience, but other factors, like an improved donation process, have been taken into account to appeal to untapped markets.

Lynch said sales had leveled off in recent years, which has meant less revenue and smaller contributions to the company’s mission of helping train and place disabled workers.

But Goodwill is not in the business of stealing customers from Salvation Army or AMVETS, Lynch said, so the organization instead looked at ways to draw new customers amid a new level of competition.

“We’re looking at opening up our market to young families, college kids looking at getting really good branded products at a good price, do-it-yourselfers, just getting new shoppers to give us a shot,” Lynch said. “When we get them for the first time, they tend to stay.”

Different landscape

Shoppers are a commodity unto themselves in the complex, evolving world of secondhand stores.

They also are the beneficiaries.

The explosion of slightly used items – from clothes to furniture – generated by America’s formidable consumer culture has created a competitive market for those goods. Britt Beemer, chairman and CEO of America’s Research group, which gathers information on consumer behavior, said about one-third of Americans went into a thrift shop or consignment shop last year. That’s more than the percentage of Americans who went into a closed mall during that time, he said.

For-profit stores like Savers and Plato’s Closet, some of which pay for secondhand clothes, have raised the bar for nonprofits that depend on donations to raise money in their stores to support their charitable efforts.

Goodwill has tried making the donation process easier. Another strategy has been to view consignment shops as potential partners, Lynch said, by asking them to suggest that clients donate their unpurchased items to Goodwill.

Donors to shoppers

To meet the new competition, nonprofits are striving to improve the in-store experience, which studies showed would be the best way to increase sales. For some stores, that meant basic upgrades to the interior and expanding the merchandise selection. In other cases, it means doing more. Goodwill will replace its store near the airport with one on Union Road near the Walden Galleria. It will be the company’s biggest store in Western New York going forward, Lynch said.

The nonprofits also are focusing on increasing donations, and turning donors into shoppers. In remodeling some of its stores, Goodwill has altered the layout so customers can bring donations directly to the store instead of to a central headquarters or drop off truck, Lynch said.

“Converting donors to shoppers is an important part of the growth strategy,” he said. “We want donors to think, ‘I just donated a bunch of great stuff, maybe I’ll go in the front door and see what they’ve got, too.’”

Salvation Army

Salvation Army has attempted to boost recently lagging donations as well. By doing events at a Sabres game and at a local farmers market, the organization aims to promote donating and make the process as easy as possible, said Ann Marie Taft, community relations and special events coordinator for the Salvation Army of Greater Buffalo.

In addition, the organization has gotten creative with events to draw in a different demographic. A few years ago, Salvation Army started a “re-fashionista challenge,” a competition that asked local fashion designers to take a piece of clothing from a Salvation Army thrift store and make it “runway ready,” Taft said.

The contest has grown since its creation, she said. Sixteen designers participated the first year, and 24 competed the second year. Attendance also increased after the first challenge, she said. An event like the re-fashionista challenge can reach a wide demographic, Taft said, such as crafters, people who want to recycle clothing and normal thrifters.

New competition

While thrift stores have been putting in the time, effort, and in some cases money, to diversify and expand who comes into its stores, they also have had to deal with competition. Not just with each other, but with consignment shops, like Plato’s Closet, Clothes Mentor or Once Upon a Child.

Savers, a thrift store chain in the U.S. and Canada, supports specific local non-profits. It made more than $200 million such donations in 2014. Reseller chains such as Plato’s Closet, Clothes Mentor and Once Upon a Child buy used clothing from consumers, then resell it at a profit.

Scores of small, independent thrift stores also buy clothing at estate and garage sales as well as nonprofit thrift stores like Salvation Army and Goodwill, then resell them for a profit.

Consignment stores put privately owned clothing out for sale, then split the profit with the clothing’s previous owner once it sells. There are also several small nonprofit thrift shops run by churches and charities, such as the New To You Thrift Shop on Grant Street and the Hearts Thrift Shop on Tonawanda Street.

Locally, Savers has seen good success and steady sales – enough to warrant opening up a second shop in Tonawanda to go with its Hamburg location. Shoppers are seeking more value in their purchases, which is helping to drive a rise in thrift shopping, said Sara Gaugl, a Savers spokeswoman.

In the race to draw in newer demographics of shoppers, Savers has had success with at least one group, she said.

“In particular, we’re seeing strong growth with millennials and a younger shopper base,” Gaugl said.

She said millennials are passionate about being thrifty and customizing what they purchase. Savers also has seen a rise in do-it-yourselfers who are looking for ways to reuse old clothing or furniture.

The rise of these market groups coincides with the shoppers becoming more environmentally and budget-conscious.

“I do believe there’s a much greater awareness of the fabrics, the styles, different quality that some people want that they don’t want to pay full price for,” Taft said. “And people always want a new piece or something unique.”

Remodeled

The Salvation Army and Goodwill also are fighting to attract those shoppers. Salvation Army has added new light fixtures and easier access to in-store items, and is currently renovating its location on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst next to the Boulevard Mall.

Goodwill saw a 36 percent increase in sales at its Tonawanda store the weekend of the reopening compared to the same time period last year, and has drawn many new customers into its remodeled stores, said Linda Maraszek, marketing coordinator for Goodwill Western New York. Reaction from shoppers has been positive as well.

Just a few days after the store in Tonawanda reopened, a range of customers scanned the store. One woman, who was there with her children, said she appreciated that she could get something for everyone in the family at Goodwill. Another customer said they appreciated that Goodwill offered housewares in addition to clothing for reasonable prices.

Lynch, the CEO of Goodwill Western New York, said all remodeling on its stores will be completed this year, with the Clarence location being the final big remodel. After that, the airport plaza store will be replaced by the Union Road store, which will serve as the setup Goodwill will emulate moving forward.

“The reaction in the first few stores, people have been stunned,” Lynch said. “Other than the fact that we’re selling gently used items, you could be in Target or a T.J. Maxx.”

email: bsamuels@buffnews.com