When Jamie Lorentz goes into the store, she often does not know what she is looking for, but she knows it when she finds it. Her “Eureka!” moment may come from a perfect dress for her daughter, a collection of books for her son or even a vintage piece of cookware. What the Carterville resident is searching for are bargains and like thousands of other Illinoisans, she often finds them in thrift stores and resale shops.
Throughout the country, “re-commerce” is big business and consumers like Lorentz are the driving force for the growing retail sector. They are armed with an obsession for finding great deals and a passion for helping their communities at the same time.
“No one knows for sure exactly how many stores are in this industry, but we estimate there are about 35,000 resale and consignment stores across the country,” explains Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS).
The stores, which often include the words consignment, thrift or resale in their names, make up a growing part of the U.S. retail economy. A recent study by First Research shows annual revenue for second-hand stores of more than $17 billion annually. Resale is growing both in terms of revenue (sales are up about 7 percent in the last two years according to NARTS) and in the number of stores. In fact, Global Data, a worldwide consulting company, reports since 2017, the resale segment has grown 21 times faster than the broader retail apparel industry.
Some resellers are nationally known. Goodwill Industries has 3,000 locations across the country. The Salvation Army runs more than 250 stores in the Midwest. However, most thrift stores are independently operated, serving a community or region and each employing a few staff members.
“This is an industry that varies a great deal. You can’t pinpoint or describe them simply; it’s not an industry like convenient stores, where everything is the same or very similar,” Meyer says, adding that the way the stores operate and even their purpose can vary widely, as does what the stores carry.
Some stores take a broad approach, offering all sorts of merchandise from clothing and books to housewares. Others focus solely on items such as furniture or cater to a particular segment of customers like carrying only women’s clothing.
The way thrift stores obtain inventory varies. Most encourage donations – a system where customers or community members simply pass along unwanted items to be resold. Other stores feature items on consignment – merchandise remains the property of the original owner until it is resold, when proceeds are shared between the store and owner. Other shops purchase items outright from individuals for resale.
The purpose of resale stores varies as well. Many shops exist as a funding arm for non-profit organizations serving their communities or regions.
Hearts United Thrift Resale in Litchfield is a perfect example. A collaborative effort of more than 10 area churches, sales from a 5,000-square-foot thrift store serves a variety of ministries.
“It creates a financial basis for an operation to help others in need. We serve as sort of a funnel for churches in Litchfield, and it is an opportunity to share the gifts of many blessings of people who donate to us,” says Dave Knoblich, the organization’s administrator. “We are the hands for those churches to relieve some of the burden and help the people of the community.”
In Peru and Ottawa, a pair of resale stores called Lily Pads support the efforts of Illinois Valley Public Action to Deliver Shelter, a non-profit that serves homeless clients with shelter, educational outreach and other support.
“I like that by shopping there, everything we spend stays in our community,” explains Artie Giese of Peru, who says he shops at Lily Pads every two or three days. “By shopping there, we are helping them fulfill their mission of helping people in our area.”
In Carbondale, Two Bugs and a Bean Children’s Resale Boutique specializes in clothing and gear for children and teenagers with proceeds supporting its parent organization, the Foster Family Resource Center of Southern Illinois.
“Our goal is to encourage and support foster families throughout the region by providing items to meet the immediate needs of foster families completely free of charge; everything from diapers and formula to cribs, clothes and car seats,” explains Diane Rittenhouse of Two Bugs and a Bean. “Our customers make it so we can do that.”
Other stores around the state support animal shelters, provide free or reduced-cost dental care, fund pregnancy centers or other charitable causes. Customers appreciate that their purchases help others.
“I like that when I’m spending my money, I know it is going to a good cause,” explains Lorentz, who visits three or four charity-based thrift stores each week. “They all are doing a lot for the community and I like that.”
Thrift shopping and fashion blogger (yes, there is such a thing – thrifting and fashion can go together) Hannah Rupp of www.theoutfitrepeater.com says many resale shops are a big part of doing good in a simple way.
“Shopping at thrift stores is a great way to support your community,” she says. “By giving a donation, you keep the store in business with stock to resell and by making a purchase, your money goes back into programs supported by thrift stores. It’s a win-win.”
Why are thrift stores popular? The reasons are as diverse as the store themselves.
“People love a bargain,” Meyer explains. “They love to get the most for their dollars, but that’s just part of it. People also love helping their community and one of the big appeals is sustainability. Consumers are conscious of the environment and see this as a way of recycling. If there wasn’t a resale industry, a lot of clothes would end up in landfills.”
Tonya Wiseman of Love It or Leave It, a consignment store in Quincy, says thrift stores appeal to a wide population.
“We have a wide range of customers from all sorts of backgrounds. We have those with less money to spend, looking for bargains and we have higher income families that shop here, too. We also have millennials who just love thrifting and seeing what they can find,” she says.
For many, the thrill of finding a great deal or a one-of-a-kind item draws them to resale shops.
“Visiting a thrift shop is a way of finding things you can’t find anywhere else,” Meyer says. “It’s not like walking into a big box store where you see a rack of blouses that are all the same. Things at resale shops are unique.”
Rupp, who writes her blog from her home in Wisconsin but frequently visits Illinois thrift stores, says the “discovery” is part of the charm of resale shopping.
“As cliché as it sounds, I really love the thrill of the hunt that comes with shopping at thrift stores. You never know what you’ll find when you walk in. Every store is different with a unique inventory,” she says.
The economics of thrift store shopping also makes sense to many consumers.
“We have the means to go to big retail stores and buy name brand clothes fresh off of the racks,” Lorentz says, “but I’d rather buy nice things at a resale shop and save the extra money to use for something else more meaningful for my family.
She continues, “Why spend so much money on clothes for the kids that they are only going to wear for one season?”
An ever-changing industry
Meyer cautions those who have not been to a thrift store in a while to throw out any preconceived notions they may have. The stereotypical resale shop with crammed clothing racks, dim lighting and dirty floors is a thing of the past, she says. Many of today’s resale shops have a boutique feel to them, on par with many upscale retailers.
“There have been a couple of times when we have had customers ask us why we don’t have more than one of any particular item,” recalls Two Bugs and a Bean’s Rittenhouse. “We’ve had to explain that we are a resale shop. Often people tell us that they’ve never seen a resale shop look like this before.”
In Litchfield, Knoblich gets similar responses from his customers.
“We’ve heard from many customers who tell us, ‘Your store looks so good and it smells nice.’ I think the shopping experience is what is drawing more people to stores that are well cared for,” he says.
Wiseman likes to keep her store organized and clean and says customers seem to appreciate it.
“When I’m shopping, I hate having to dig through crammed racks, so I definitely don’t want ours to be that way. I like my store, my dressing rooms and everything to be clean and vacuumed. I want people to know the store is clean and safe and they won’t have to dig to find what they are looking for,” she says.
Perceptions of thrift shopping have changed, too. Bloggers and social media influencers such as Rupp are showing how resale shopping can be fashionable and trendy. Even the stigma attached to thrift purchases has turned into a point of pride.
As Meyer explains, “Decades ago when people went into resale shops, they wouldn’t want anyone to know. I remember stories of people hiding in a fitting room when someone they worked with or a neighbor happened to come in. People would make up all kinds of things when they were complimented on an item because they didn’t want to confess it came from a resale shop.”
Lorentz used to be one of those people, but things have changed for her.
“Growing up, it was embarrassing to admit you were wearing something from a thrift store,” Lorentz remembers. “You wouldn’t tell anybody. Now, the outfits I pretty much wear everyday are from secondhand stores and I get the most compliments. People ask me
‘Where did you get that?’ and I tell them it was just $2 at the thrift store.”
Meyer says the transition is a simple one. “Now it is trendy to shop resale and people are proud they are saving money.” She says the inventory available in thrift shops is different too, sharing that she’s seen everything from Waterford crystal to designer handbags offered at deeply discounted prices. In all, the change in image and in merchandise has made thrift shopping popular for a variety of reasons.
“People realize they can get great things for wonderful prices and are supporting stores that support the local community, employ people, pay taxes and do good. It’s just a smart way to shop,” she says.
Wiseman sums it up this way, “We’re here simply to help people get quality items and good prices.”
Rupp says practically anyone can find something they want or need at a thrift store, but in order to find it, they have to look. “Secondhand shopping isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-time thing,” she says. “It should be something you gradually work into your life until it becomes a habit.”