Thfity business: In slumping economy, local resale stores are thriving or holding their own

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2008

By Katie Scarvey
There’s no question that retail stores are taking a hit with our slumping economy. Retail sales are down except for Wal-Mart, which seems to be picking up customers who rarely shopped there before.
Other stores that aren’t suffering much are resale stores ó whether thrift or consignment ó which offer bargains on second-hand items to cash-strapped consumers looking to slash costs.
They’re also benefitting from customers who are trying to be eco-friendly by buying recycled clothing and household items, thereby conserving natural resources.
Locally, resale stores seem to be doing fairly well ó and some are thriving.
Nazareth Thrift Outlet
One store flourishing in a tough economy is the Nazareth Thrift Outlet, 1800 E. Innes St. Formerly located in an old chapel on the grounds of Nazareth Children’s Home in Rockwell, the store has seen its fortunes rise with better exposure at its new location.
Manager Gloria Black says business has picked up lately.
“We are seeing a lot of new customers, which we’re very excited about,” she says.
She believes it’s partly because of a struggling economy and partly a result of increased advertising.
The store has always been concerned with the needs of local people, Black says. When Pillowtex closed its doors, the store gave the families of the laid-off workers a $100 store credit, and many took advantage of it ó and went on to become regular customers.
Black wants shoppers to know that the store has new merchandise, as well as used.
“We’re now a thrift outlet,” she says. In addition to used clothing and household items, they offer new furniture and decor donated by an interior design company. They also receive shipments of Champion sportswear ó shoppers recently snapped up new sports bras for $3 apiece.
“We never know from day to day what we’ll be blessed with and have for our customers to purchase,” Black says.
“Our customers are so appreciative,” she says, to be able to buy a whole bag of clothing for $10.
The store inspires a feeling of camaraderie in its shoppers.
“We know our regulars,” Black says. “We know our customers’ children, moms and dads, the grandparents. It’s like a big family.”
Not only do customers get a bargain, they get the satisfaction of knowing that they’re helping to fund The Nazareth Children’s Home.
Habitat for Humanity
The Habitat for Humanity ReStore has also been doing well ó so well that it’s looking to expand into a larger space, says Coleman Emerson, Habitat’s executive director.
“We are a thriving enterprise,” Emerson says, adding that annually, proceeds from the store fund a large portion of a home construction project.
The goal is 10,000 square feet ó about four times the space the store currently occupies. Right now, he says, the store is too small to do the volume he’d like.
Located at 125 E. Innes St., the store sells household items, including furniture, housewares, appliances, as well as construction items ó no clothing.
Sales are increasing each month, says Elizabeth Brady, director of store operations. Business is brisk, and she likes to keep it that way, pricing merchandise to go.
“There are excellent buys,” she says.
Brady notes that she has seen new customers in recent months, some in search of things like washers and dryers.
“People who would before just buy new are re-thinking that.”
Large appliances typically sell within 24-48 hours, she says. The store keeps a wish list ó people identify specific items they’re looking for and are notified when an item comes in.
The store has two vehicles that keep busy picking up donated items.
Emerson points out that the store’s customers are a diverse group.
“The customer is the bargain-hunter, of all classes,” he says.
In the great circle of commerce, many of the store’s customers also donate items to the store, including, sometimes, “nice, high-end antiques,” Brady says.
Part of people’s willingness to donate is “who we are and what we’re doing with the money,” Emerson said.
Although sales have been increasing, store manager Regina Stansel notes that donations have been a little slower than normal recently.
She’s hearing more frequently from people who donate that they’ve tried to sell the items themselves before giving them to Habitat. Brady also notes that more people are asking if the store will accept consignments (they don’t).
Susan Waller was in the store shopping last Wednesday, looking mostly for baskets, ribbons and mugs but open to anything that caught her fancy.
She says she haunts area resale stores, searching for inexpensive material to make baskets for the library’s gift basket sale.
Tracy McMillin was also shopping Wednesday. Like Waller, she is both a customer and a donor.
“I love it,” she says. “I can always find something.”
Goodwill sees drop
Although the local Habitat and Nazareth stores are doing well, business has been off at Goodwill stores in the region, says Jaymie Eichorn, director of marketing and communications for Goodwill Industries of Northwest N.C.
“We’ve actually seen a pretty big decrease in sales and donations, especially donations,” she says. The downward trend started in July, she adds.
Sales picked up in October, which is traditionally a strong month because of people buying items for Halloween costumes, Eichorn said.
Still, donations are “definitely down,” she says, probably close to 10 percent from what they’d normally expect.
“This economy is impacting everyone,” she says. She speculates that people who would normally be donating items are instead taking them to consignment stores or finding other ways to sell them. “People are trying to reap a little more out of things they don’t want or need.”
At the same time donations are down, Eichorn says that Goodwill has seen a significant increase in people using its job training programs.
She notes that in tough economic times, with the unemployment rate going up, their Career Connection Centers ó including one in Rowan County ó are there to help people find jobs. That service, she adds, is funded primarily by their retail stores, and is available to anyone who needs it. They can help with resumes, interviewing skills and career counseling.Like Goodwill, the local Salvation Army resale store has not seen its sales increase in recent months, says Major Robin Star.
Consignment shops
Consignment stores recently received attention when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin ó in response to criticism of her pricey GOP-funded wardrobe ó gave a shout-out to her favorite Anchorage consignment store, where she has reportedly snagged such deals as a Dolce and Gabbana jacket for $165.
People who consign their gently-used clothing at such stores get a percentage of what their items bring if they’re sold. With many households watching every penny, consigning can be an easy way to make a little extra cash off items that are no longer wanted.
A well-established local consignment shop is Growing Pains, 115 W. Innes St. Although business was down in September compared to the previous September ó about a third ó things picked up in October, according to owner Dale Newman.
“People have been shopping earlier this year, I think for Christmas,” she says.
Her customers are definitely aware of prices, she says, as well as the quality of the clothing. “They want the name brand clothing, and they only have so much money,” she says.
Parents love being able to get a child an Ambercrombie and Fitch shirt for $3 or $4, she adds.
Customers these days are also concerned about keeping costs down after they leave the store.
“They don’t want to buy anything nowadays that has to be altered or dry cleaned,” she says.
Before 9/11, she says, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to come in and buy an item of clothing and say something like, “If I can lose five pounds, I can get into these jeans.
“Now, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go home with them.”
Still, the outlook for consignment stores is so good that Kellie Corl recently took the plunge and opened a new one, Kellie’s Consignment, just a few steps down from Growing Pains on East Innes Street. It’s open already, although she doesn’t have a lot of inventory yet.
“I felt like this was a good time to open a consignment store,” said Corl, who says that by the time she had her second child, she’d”learned not to buy everything brand new.”
She’s banking on the hope that many others have learned that lesson as well.